The Power of Three in Plotting

Real Life Examples

One of the more powerful techniques of plotting is to capitalize on the power of the number three. While you may be vaguely aware of this technique, still and yet, you may not fully grasp how it can strengthen your plotting capabilities.

Stepping away from story form for a moment, let’s look at real life examples.

  • First of all we have the Creator God – one God in three entities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • He created the earth as earth, sea (water), and air.
  • In the earth we have animal, vegetable, and mineral.
  • And in the human body there is blood, flesh, and bone.
  • In the human cell there is the cell wall, the nucleus, and cytoplasm

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This list can go on and on, but you get the idea. Threes are everywhere.

Now you may be thinking, this is all fine, well and good, but how can this awareness affect my plotting?

Threes in Children’s Stories

Perhaps it will help to consider the pattern of three that shows up in the plots of stories from your childhood:

  • Goldilocks and the three bears
  • The three little pigs and the big bad wolf
  • Cinderella and two stepsisters
  • Rub a dub dub three men in a tub – butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. (And that’s not even a story just a little nursery rhyme.)
  • In Dickens’ story of the Christmas Carol, how many spirits were there? Three.
  • And when Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz clicks her heels together while wearing the ruby slippers, how many times does she click? Right again, three.

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Threes are Everywhere

Once you have turned your attention to this concept, you will begin to see it everywhere as you read (and research) different stories and novels.

Our novel-writing trinity is: character – action – plot.

The action is the bridge for the two. What the character does (action) creates the plot.

And if you want to take this trinity concept further – your novel has a beginning, and middle, and an ending.

It has been said that: One is an incident; two is a pattern; and three breaks it.

The Triangle Plot

Let’s say you begin your plot with one character. One single person. So you have a protagonist but no antagonist. Will you have a story? Probably not.

The very nature of fiction is conflict – someONE against another someONE – or against a someTHING.

Now we bring in that someone or something against which the protagonist is struggling. This is the antagonist. In short stories this is often as far as things go. One person against nature, or against the forces of evil (perhaps within himself), or against the villain and so on. However, for a novel there really needs to be a third element to make it all fascinating, interesting, and compelling.

Be A NovelistThe most common use of this concept is one we’re all familiar with – the love triangle. No one could begin to count the times that the concept of a love triangle has been used in stories, novels, plays, and movies through the years.

Threes in Your Novel

As you are reading this blog, I hope your mind is going to your own novel. Think about how your characters are situated. If you have limited the action between one protagonist and one antagonist, you may want to back up and take another look. How could a third element be brought in to make the fireworks happen?

The dynamics of the triangle has a factor of six – notice it grows geometrically not arithmetically.

You have character A, Character B, and Character C.

The story will take in how A relates to B and C. How B relates to A and C. and how C relates the A and B. Now you have six relationships. Fascinating, right?

If you attempt four main characters, now you may have trouble. The dynamic is now twelve – that’s twelve relationships and sets of interactions to deal with. That’s a lot even for the more seasoned novelist.

Two Sets of Threes

Rather than grow the set to four, a better idea is to create two sets of triangles. For instance you might have a set of three major characters, then weave in a set of three minor characters.

While the main character in the major triangle may participate in the second triangle, beware of confusing the reader with too many relationships. Be A NovelistKeep it as simple as possible

I’m not trying to confuse you, but rather to help you be aware of and to appreciate this age-old fiction strategy. The more you notice it, and the more it is at the forefront of your mind as you plot, the better able you will be to master it.

Growing in your knowledge of plotting techniques is one of the best ways to improve your writing. Never stop learning or growing in your craft.


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