Okay, so what I wanted to blather on about today has its roots in screenwriting, but it’s a lesson that can get applied to short stories and novels as well. Simply put, it has to do with boring your readers.
Some of you may have heard of the "rule of three." It's a good screenwriting rule of thumb that you should never do something more than three times in a movie because it starts wearing on the audience. By the third time you’re showing me something, I’ve either got it or I don’t. And if I don’t, it’s not my fault...
For example, in the movie Iron Man we see three big examples of Tony Stark’s playboy lifestyle before something happens to make him change (blowing off the award ceremony, sleeping with the hot reporter, and partying on his private jet). He then goes on to design three versions of the Iron Man armor, which also involves taking three test flights (one of them very, very short). While all this is going on, we get three examples of what a great guy Obadiah Stane is, three of what an evil jerk he is, and the ever-loveable Agent Coulson asks three times about debriefing Tony and we get three jokes about the overly-long name of his government division before the payoff most comic geeks saw coming.
Seriously, pick up almost any movie you like and you'll be stunned how quick the threes add up. The Hulk goes on three rampages in his last movie. In Highlander we see three other immortals die before the final battle. In Aliens there are three major attacks and three examples of Burke being a slimebag. In the movie Severance, the bear trap slams shut three times (and if you haven’t seen it, I’m not explaining that any further). In Casablanca, Victor and Ilsa ask for the letters of transit three times. Heck, in The Princess Bride, how many challenges does the Man in Black have to overcome to claim Buttercup (I’ll give you a hint—Inigo, Fezzik, Vincini)? And there are three great swordfights in that film—all involving Inigo.
Now I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking three’s just an arbitrary number, right? It could be the rule of two or the rule of four. That’s very true, and you can find some examples of both. In Charlotte’s Web, for example, the children’s classic by E.B. White (he of the awful style guide), there are four words that get spun into webs and none of us were screaming “get on with it” when our parents read that book to us.
In a script I just read, though, there were over a dozen examples of how low the single-dad main character had sunk. It starts with him late for work (as a waiter—historically a job of high pay and great respect) where he had a party dine-and-dash so he has to cover their bill. Then his car breaks down and he has to walk home in the rain. Then he gets a collections notice. Then he has to go grocery shopping and doesn’t have enough money. Then the babysitter demands more money because he’s late again. Then his power gets shut off. Then another party dines-and-dashes on him and he gets fired. Then he gets an eviction notice. Keep in mind, this is only the first twenty pages of the script or so, and there’s still more examples coming.
At what point did you get the idea this guy’s at rock-bottom? Halfway through that list? A third? Check which note you got it on and count backwards. Was it on the third example?
I bet it was...
Here’s the thing. Each time we get exposed to information or events, it changes our understanding of them. And a writer needs to be aware of how the reader is going to be seeing these facts or events.
The first time we get exposed to a piece of information—and only the first time—it’s something new. We, as the audience, didn’t know this or haven’t seen it before. Agent Coulson’s introduced as yet another guy who needs to schedule a meeting about Tony escaping from Gulimar. We brush him off the same way Pepper does (well, those folks do who don’t recognize the initials of his agency).
The second time we see this happen, on the page or on screen, it establishes a pattern. Now we know the first time wasn’t an isolated event or a fluke, and it gives us a little more information about things and characters. Coulson shows up again and hasn’t forgotten about this meeting and he isn’t going away. There’s also the unspoken question of how did some low-end, government flunky get into this extremely high-end exclusive party.
The third time confirms that pattern. These behaviors or incidents are a definite element of the character or story. Coulson shows up to remind Pepper of his loosely-scheduled appointment and she grabs him to use as a shield against Obadiah.
When I start going past this point, things start becoming less informative and more... well, boring. Once the information’s been established, continuing to repeat it is just noise the reader’s going to tune out. And eventually—quickly, really—they’re going to get annoyed that I’m just repeating stuff they already know rather than moving forward, because storytelling is all about forward motion.
Now, as I said above, there are always exceptions to the rule of three. One of the easiest ways is when a writer is very subtle about something and the reader doesn’t realize they’ve gotten that first exposure. They may be on their third or fourth before they notice it, so the pattern forms around the fifth or sixth time—and is all the cooler when they look back and realize the pattern was there all along. When we finally notice the Observer on Fringe, we discover he’s been there all along, in every episode. Another good example is Jason Hornsby’s Eleven Twenty-Three, where a town is suffering from brief outbreaks of extreme violence. It happens twice before the characters realize the outbreaks always occur exactly at the titular time, and then they suffer through three more of them before the end of the book.
On the flipside, there are times we only need to see something once or twice to establish them. This works best for real-world things that most people can relate to. Neo only gets chewed out once by his boss, at the beginning of The Matrix, and we all immediately realize what kind of employee he is. In Dean Koontz’s underappreciated Fear Nothing, we only need to see one of Christopher’s parents die to understand his sadness and loneliness.
You can also change the dynamic. Establishing something with the rule of three doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it. One of the standards of good storytelling is conflict that forces things to change. Once we’ve seen three examples telling us who this character is, it’s a good time to start working that arc to change them into something else. Yes, that third time asking about the appointment makes Coulson look like the ultimate paper-pusher, but right after that point we discover just how calm and collected he really is. This is a guy who doesn't just have a sidearm, he carries around shaped explosives just in case he needs to open a locked door.
Look back over some of your writing and see how many times you give examples of something. Character traits, recurring events, whatever. Could some of them go away to tighten your novel or give you more space in that script for something else? Or can you restructure things to hit one of the exceptions I mentioned above (three exceptions, for those of you keeping score).
Next time, I wanted to take a step back and explain why you should avoid taking a step back in your writing.
Until then, go write.
Until then, go write.