Playwriting

Using the “Rule of Threes” in Dialogue

Three is an important number to dramatists:

  • It denotes rudimentary story structure (beginning, middle, and end)
  • It denotes the magic act (pledge, turn, and prestige)
  • It is the simplest expression of imbalance and tension (being the smallest odd prime number)

We call it the “Rule of Threes” — Anything presented in groups of three will generally be more pleasing to an audience than any other number. But how does it actually work in practice? Let’s look at a great example, a simple joke in the opening of Woody Allen’s one-act play, God. Two ancient Greeks, an actor and a writer, are having a spat over how to write an ending for a play:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a starving, out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play in an effort to assist your comeback.

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a drunkard.

This joke is satisfying (to me at least) because it uses the rule of threes simply and to great effect. In fact we have three groups of three in cascading order. First, the writer levels three criticisms at the actor:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a (1) starving, (2) out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play (3) in an effort to assist your comeback.

Next, he unpacks the joke with three affirmative statements in the following line:

ACTOR: Starving, (1) yes . . . Out of work, (2) perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, (3) maybe – but a drunkard?

The “yes – perhaps – maybe” is a motivated sequence that creates tension. We are filled with the suspense of threes and primed for the setup: the actor adds something that the writer didn’t say. Lastly, observe how he uses the Rule of Threes again to deliver the punchline, by repeating the adjective “drunkard”:

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a (1) drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a (2) drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a (3) drunkard. 

If you found this joke funny, think for a moment how it would play if it lacked this delicate balance of threes. I don’t think it would play well, or even at all.

Every line, better yet every word in a play is a choice that can either add to the drama of the moment or detract from it. This why the Rule of Threes is so critical to the craft. Audiences pick up on patterns of threes subconsciously, making them very effective agents of misdirection and surprise, the bread and butter of dramatic writing. Why do we all agree on the number three so much? Who really knows. But it works.

 

Playwriting

Secrets of the Storytelling Cycle

Everything in our natural world runs on a cycle — day to night, life to death, clouds to rain, etc. In thermodynamics we observe that the universe doesn’t really create anything new; it merely recycles the energy that it has over and over again through a complex feedback system. The entirety of life is a cycle that is repeated over and over again, eon after eon, extinction after extinction.

Cycles are important shapes for describing our world, so it stands to reason they should be important for telling stories about that world. In this blog I’m going to show you how to visualize your story as a cycle from beginning to end. Please direct your attention to this crudely drawn diagram I made in MS Paint:

Cycle Diagram

  1. The hero begins her journey like any other day. In the first quarter of the day, the sun is dawning. She trusts what she sees, everything is illuminated in sunlight, and everything is as it should be. Another normal day.
  2. At midday, when the sun is shining highest and brightest, the hero will be challenged to make a seismic change in her life. A “call to adventure” shakes off apathy and forces her to start looking at the world differently. Suddenly the sun’s light is a lie, and always has been. Appearances give way to the truth.
  3. As we reach the threshold of the night, things start to get a little scary. The hero must leave everything she knows behind to find the change she needs, and she is reluctant. This is the “point of no return”, the last few minutes of daylight where things still make sense. Whether she wants to or not, the will of the fates push her into the night.
  4. The hero begins her journey in earnest. Plunging fully into the night, she becomes lost in the nighttime realm of dreams, mystery, and magic. Nothing makes sense. Darkness slowly but surely envelops her. Strange creatures and monsters that only come out at night feed on her deepest fears and insecurities. It seems she has made a terrible miscalculation and is even more confused than before. She makes new friends along the way who help in increments, but it’s a hellish trip.
  5. Here we reach the nadir of the nighttime. It is the point where the darkness is darkest; hope does not exist. The hero begs the Gods/Fates for an answer but finds only herself. The monsters from earlier were just illusions — the real danger is the hero losing herself to the darkness. She must adapt or die.
  6. Once the ego trips and illusions of the daytime are fully crushed and there is nowhere left to turn, the hero stops looking outward for change and starts looking inward. In doing so she summons her inner “demon” that is preventing change. This is when the sun starts to rise again, and slowly but surely the light trickles in. The path to change becomes clearer and clearer as she climbs out of the darkness and pursues her inner demon.

Just before the dawn breaks and we return to position 1, the hero vanquishes her demon with some well-timed help from her new friends. The cycle is now complete and starts over. Except this time it’s much different — the hero has slain her inner demons and knows how to deliver change. Nothing will be the same, and when the sun fully rises, it brings a brand new “enlightenment” along with it.

Diagramming a story as a cycle is a simple way to help you get a better picture of your story structure. When you do so, you can bisect the circle as many times as you want to identify individual beats, creating a sort of drama color wheel. With it you can at least establish your 6 major story beats and gain some clues to how the character arcs should flow.

For a more in-depth look at cycles and how you can apply them to your own stories, I highly recommend Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 104 crash course at Channel 101 Wiki.

 

 

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Thanks for visiting. I have been a playwright for nearly 20 years and have written over 50 plays, a few of them quite good. On this site you will find all of my latest work, as well as updates on new projects and essays on the craft that may help in your own writing.

Think of it as a place you can go to a) inquire about producing one of my shows, b) learn a bit about the life of a playwright, or c) pick up some quick tips to add to your writer’s bag of tricks. Stay tuned!