Back to the Rule of Three

by Patricia Bradley, @ptbradley1

Last month I talked about the rule of three in structure and in dialogue. You can read it here. This month I want to discuss how to use it in a major scene.

Scenes have a beginning, middle, and end, and your major scenes have a disaster coming at the end (all scenes should end with a twist or something to make the reader turn the page). So how do you set up for it? First of all, think of your scenes as suspense scenes—where the biggest payoff is withheld (postponed) until the end. Withholding builds anticipation. In this way humor and suspense scenes are similar: both are about postponing. The anticipation builds by postponing the disaster (or surprise or punch line).
A writer can add more depth to a scene by structuring it in three parts. In a major scene, think of something that can be structured in a series of three: three attempts at the POV character’s scene goal; three reasons why something should happen; three arguments; etc.

(The following example is from Alicia Rasley’s Emotion Workshop and is used with her permission.)

Here’s an example of a heroine using three arguments to convince her friend to leave an abusive husband:

1)Points out that he’s not worth staying with.

2) Offers her shelter and support.

3) Suggests she think about what this is doing to the kids

What you want is for each argument to escalate the tension. Escalation is what leads to disaster— tension/action/conflict RISING to the point of disaster.

1. Start with the mildest of the three arguments—the heroine would probably first point out there’s a problem and say something like “He’s never going to change.” It’s pretty mild and wouldn’t alienate her friend.

Maybe the friend says,”Even if he doesn’t change—what am I supposed to do? I don’t have any money. The house is in his name. I’ll be out on the street.”

2. Now it’s time for a solution and the heroine offers her shelter and support.

There is definitely some emotional risk here, because how many of us want to take in another family? And if you set your heroine up as someone who values her privacy, it will add to the tension.

3. The friend wavers—if it was an easy decision, she would have made it long ago. The heroine goes for the strongest, most emotionally charged argument: “What if he kills you and your kids discover your body? You think they will ever get over that? Think about your kids.”

That’s the hardest argument, the most painful, because the friend knows she has already probably damaged her kids by staying, and it’s so hard to face that. But that’s what makes this feel like a high-wire act,dangerous and intense. It will be most intense if you reserve the most emotional or otherwise risky “third” till the end.

This is usually not the end of the scene, but leads right to the end of the scene—maybe leads to the final decision or action that leads to the disaster, in this case, the friend agrees, they start to pack, abusive husband comes home and catches them, creating a whole new worse problem.

And that’s how to use the rule of three in a major scene.


Back to the Rule of Three by Patricia Bradley

How does postponing the disaster build anticipation when writing a scene?~ by Patricia Bradley
What you want is for each argument to escalate the tension.~ by Patricia Bradley

Justice Delayed

It’s been eighteen years since TV crime reporter Andi Hollister’s sister was murdered. The confessed killer is behind bars, and the execution date is looming. But when a letter surfaces stating that the condemned killer didn’t actually do it, Detective Will Kincaide of the Memphis Cold Case Unit will stop at nothing to help Andi get to the bottom of it. After all, this case is personal: the person who confessed to the crime is Will’s cousin. They have less than a week to find the real killer before the wrong person is executed. But much can be accomplished in that week–including uncovering police corruption, running for your life, and falling in love.

Patricia Bradley lives in North Mississippi with her rescue kitty Suzy and loves to write suspense with a twist of romance. Her books include the Logan Point series and two Harlequin Heartwarming romances. Justice Delayed, a Memphis Cold Case Novel, is the first book in her next series and it releases January 31, 2017. When she has time, she likes to throw mud on a wheel and see what happens.