Make your writing richer using the rule of three
Published: April 14, 2011
Q: How can I transform my children’s story from blah into blockbuster?
Nancy I. Sanders
A: Many times our children’s stories are weak because we create flat characters and one-dimensional plots. As children’s writers, we often make the mistaken assumption that because our stories are for kids, they should be simpler than stories adults like to read. The result? Boring stories that can’t hold the interest of a child let alone catch an editor’s eye.
A strategy you can implement to automatically improve your writing involves the rule of three. This is a basic principle that says things always go better in threes. You can see this practically everywhere in children’s literature: Goldilocks and the Three Bears; Three Billy-Goats Gruff; Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. The rule of three can be found in other places too such as: reading, writing and arithmetic; tall, dark and handsome; morning, noon and night.
If you want to take your characters from boring to brilliant, give them each three strong, distinctive character traits. For instance, say you’re writing a young-adult novel about a teen who lives in Michigan. Instead of calling him a loser, give him three unique tags: he wears a black eye patch; he’s a big guy with a posture resembling a grizzly bear; and he spends all his spare time in his backyard with his chainsaw sawing logs, because he wants to win the junior division in the chainsaw competition next spring.
Even picture-book characters get more zing when you give them each three strong, distinctive character traits. Three unique tags for a cat detective could include: she has a pet flea who helps solve her cases; her favorite color is purr-ple; and she loves to munch on dog biscuits after she solves a crime.
Don’t just assign three great character traits to each of your characters, however. From picture books to beginning readers to middle-grade and young-adult novels, make each of these character traits work hard to move the plot forward, increase tension and influence the story arc.
The rule of three is equally important when developing the plot. Today’s kids want action, so let’s give it to them! Develop three subplots building in tension throughout the entire length of your children’s novel. Make your characters change in three significant ways from beginning to middle to the end of the plot. And don’t just give your characters one problem to solve. Give them three! Make them attempt to solve each problem three different times, with each effort on their part only making the problem worse.
To implement the rule of three, hold brainstorming sessions for your story. Start by reading other well-written books in your genre. List the three strong character traits each character has. Jot down notes about how those character traits influence the story from beginning to end. Look for three subplots that are working simultaneously as the story unfolds.
Then spend time with your own story. Brainstorm lists of ideas for how you can transform your flat story into a three-dimensional blockbuster. Choose your favorite sets of three to plug into your manuscript in the beginning, the middle, and on through to the end. You can send your story on its way to success by restructuring it from the ground up, using the rule of three.
Nancy I. Sanders is the author of
Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career.