Monday, 2 May 2011
The Rule Of Three : Penny Dolan
These three carved stones are in a small park in Dulwich. Cyclists and runners and dog-walkers were hurrying by so the stones don’t look quite how I wanted them to look. The shadows that animate the sculpture aren’t there strongly enough. The snap doesn’t emphasize their changing relationships or the dynamic that makes them more than three identically carved boulders.
I came across these stones shortly after a set of school visits, and the group made me remember how often I seem to highlight the number three when chatting to primary children about stories.
At the simplest level, there are the three sections of story: “the beginning, the middle, the end.” The three acts of the play. The three books that complete the narrative of the trilogy.
Then there are the slightly more complex stages of a basic plot - especially a picture book text -, where the writer has to put ideas into their best order, or so I explain to my young audiences. The adventurous hero rarely fights the extremely dangerous tiger and pulls faces at the monkey last.
The pattern of three appears everywhere in traditional tales.There are “the three wishes that must be used carefully lest they bring disaster or are wasted” like the mistakenly wished-for sausage stuck on the nagging young wife’s nose. Then there are the thrice repeated incidents – Cinderella or Ashenputtel escaping from the ball three times, or the true love waiting for three nights for her sleeping hero to wake, or the three ugly old women who arrive to spin straw into gold and save the girl, which is one of my favourite stories.
Gifts and objects sometimes appear in threes, but they aren't reliable. Three golden balls distract Atlanta from winning her race and Jack is almost caught when his third theft - the harp - starts calling for the Giant. But three lucky objects and their three accompanying actions that enable clever young children to escape the iron teeth of Baba Yaga or of Black Annis, whether butter to quieten a gate or a comb that grows into a range of mountains.
Characters revel in the “pattern of three”. It's not the oldest, nor the middle, but the youngest sibling who discovers how to complete the essential task. Even when Great Big Billy Goat defeats the Troll, it was cunning Little Billy Goat that set the Troll up for his fate. “Why not try my brother? He’s so much bigger than me.” It can be the differences between a trio of characters can make them able to adapt and withstand problems, as witnessed in the famous Harry, Ron and Hermione trio.
When talking about describing characters, objects or places, I try to suggest that three significant details are more effective than full head-to-toe descriptions of clothing or a cacophony of the dreaded “Wow!” words.
Mind you, there’s a magic within tripled words. On one hand there’s the “three men go into a bar” story and refrain. On the other there’s the power of the triple chant – from the “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest Your Hearts Blood Turn to Cold” carved over the doorways of Mr Fox’s house, Or the political declamation of “Veni, Vidi, Vici!” or other recently overused incantations.
And – sssh! - somewhere I’ve read that if you – Derren Brown style - secretly suggest something three times, a person is likely to choose whatever you have weasled away into their brain. Cunning, eh? (Must try it in book sale talks!)
Three is a tricky number, capable of easily changing shape. Which triangle will you end up with? Isosceles when you wanted equilateral? Three definitely creates tension, suspense, movement, a certain dynamic.
And that reminds me. This week’s work is battling with the third part of my current Tome. Need to get it into its most effective shape. So I will leave you with another example of the amazing rule of three . . .
A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)
THAT NOISE! and THE WRONG HOUSE (Franklin Watts)