Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Writing Craft: Picture Books and the Rule of Three

First, I have family in town. Woo-Hoo! And also, Oh, Man! Because this means things just might get a little off-schedule here at the blog as I cram the additional obligation of socialising with my houseguest into my already overcrowded schedule.

So, since we're short on time, let's get down to business. Most of you have probably already heard about the Rule of Three, but when I started writing PBs, I hadn't. I just put it in my manuscript: the main character tried to solve her problem three times before she finally got it right. I didn't mean anything by it; it's just that two didn't feel like enough, and four felt like dragging it on a bit. And then I posted it on the SCBWI boards, and a critiquer said, "You did a nice job incorporating the Rule of Three in there."

And I went, "Wha-huh?" And I thanked her, modestly, because no-one likes a braggart, even when it's obvious that the braggart is a genius. And then I went and looked it up. :-) And I went, "OHHHH!" And I realised I'm not such a genius after all.

Basically, the Rule of Three is this: when writing a PB, do things as much as possible in threes. If a character has a defining characteristic, give three examples. If the character is solving a problem, make them try and fail three times. Jane O'Connor's FANCY NANCY starts off with a great example of this when Nancy says she likes being fancy, then lays out what that means for her by listing three fancy things that she does.

Another great example is Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo, in which a mouse is first threatened by three different animals, then goes back and scares the same three animals. 

And it's kind of a no-brainer, because when you think about it, things are in threes everywhere: three acts in a play, three movements in a symphony, triangles in classical art, three, three, three. Even bad things, as the saying goes, happen in threes. Cerberus had three heads. Humans like the number three, and it's ingrained in us. So go with it.

Everybody repeat after me: THREE is a magic number...

Hee-hee. Happy Monday night!

Can you think of examples, either PBs or novels, that do things in threes? Share with us.


  1. great post... but my brain has turned off (late/tired).. sorry no more 3s here.

  2. Great Post Ishta! This is so true- All of the cartoons (Dora, Diego, etc) have 3 things to accomplish before reaching their goal.

    Enjoy your guests and have a great week!

  3. I hadn't heard of this! I guess it's one of those assumed things (though I have started to resent it in cartoons like Dora and some other show where they call it three special steps and I got angry with the idea that life is all about three. okay, it probably is, but it brought out the rebel in me). However, when I went to a book signing by Carrie Ryan, she explained it as dolphin, dolphin, shark. The first two "events" look scary, but it's only a dolphin. By the time you get to the third "event" the reader assumes nothing and then they get a shark pulled on them.
    Enjoy your family visitors. xx

  4. I didn't have a clue about the rule of threes when I started either. i think I started hearing all about rules for the first time at WriteOnCon last year! I love the Gruffalo as an example. It is a classic rule of threes. Some books have even more, so I don't know what rule that is. Like David Shannon's Duck on a Bike. The duck goes passed loads of animals.