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 . . .

Penny Dolan

A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)
THAT NOISE! and THE WRONG HOUSE (Franklin Watts)


Sue Purkiss said...

This is fascinating, Penny! I wonder what mathemeticians say about it? It works with plants, too, doesn't it - the advice ie to plant in groups of three. And when you pick flowers - it works better if you have, say, three roses, then three something elses to put in the gaps - it makes a pattern that works. And then there's the Trinity...

Hm! Thanks for this!

michelle lovric said...

And then there's the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
"And the LORD spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."

Really interesting post!

Penny Dolan said...

Agree, Sue. Three plants make a proper group, while two are just, er, two. Unless paired either side of a path or stuck somewhere similar. Didn't dare start on the mysterious Trinity! There's Earth, Fire & Water too. So many once you start looking.

Love Your Holy Grail quote, Michelle, though can't help feeling if I had to quote it as an aide-memoire when in action, the Holy Pin might well be the last thing seen. Maybe that was the idea?

Hey, and now there's even three comments to this post! At the end of a three-day holiday . . . Oh do shut up, Penny!

Cathy Butler said...

I think it's the minimum number you need to set up a pattern and then subvert it. One is an event; two establishes that event as a pattern and creates the expectation that it will continue; and then three surprises that expectation by being different after all.

Thus in folk-tales (but much the same applies with jokes), the two older brothers set the pattern by failing, and then the youngest succeeds. If there were only one older brother, it would be a contrast between two people, not the establishment and breaking of a pattern, while any more than two older brothers would be redundant.

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderfully explained, Charlie, especially the subversion.

Once read that the three brothers/sisters motif teaches the listener that, in life, you may need to try more than once and learn from your own and others mistakes. Probably Betelheim, but think I'll imagine the action Python-style.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Three little pigs.
But don't get me started on 7.

Lucy Coats said...

And yet the three-leaved clover or shamrock is considered to be lucky with that extra fourth leaf. Definitely fascinating stuff, Penny.

Lynne Garner said...

Three is an important number in art as well. In many of the old masters the triangle is hidden. The eye loves to jump from one corner to the other and end up back where it started.

Meg Harper said...

Oh yes,yes,yes, Penny! I talk about it all the time to my youth theatre bods. If you don't use it in drama - building up a joke, for example - things fall flat again and again - and again!!! : )