On Stories: Story Construction III: The magic of 3.

“Three strikes you’re out” is a well known American expression; but there is also “third time’s the charm” and “good things come in threes.”  In storytelling, three is a good thing, a bit of a magic number as we first touched on in the last post.

Two posts ago, I suggested that there were three vital parts to any and every story: setting, character and plot.  Last time I suggested that a story is best told in three movements which I called, the trigger (appetizer), the meat (main course) and the end (coffee and dessert).  These are not technical literary terms, to be sure, but I hope they may be easy to remember.

The trigger is the set-up/motive that at least suggests what the main character wants/needs/intends.  The meat of the story shows what obstacles stand in the way and what the main character does about them in order to obtain their intention/objective.  It is where all the action takes place, whether that is external action or internal action in the mind or heart.  The end comes at the climax, success or failure, and again it at least suggests some consequences.  The end shows the results.

Now, there are two other ways in which three (3) parts in a story is generally a good idea.

First, there are the obstacles themselves.  Aristotle, and most academics since his day call them reversals.  As the character strives for their intended objective, something invariably gets in the way and causes a “set-back”.

In every story, something must stand between the character and the achievement of their intent or objective.  Why?  Because that is the way life works, and also, for the story to work, it is best that the objective not be achieved too easily.  Only one obstacle overcome may make a point, but it will leave us inevitably dissatisfied, and in fact make the story into a parable.

If Cinderella starts with once upon a time…her mother died.  The first reversal comes when her father dies and she finds herself in an untenable position.  The Stepmother controls the house.  The money and servants are all gone and Cinderella finds herself as the servant in the house.  If we consider her objective to be “happiness” or something like that, her position makes that most difficult.  To her credit, she does not let that get her down.  She refuses to give into despair, and if the story ends here, as a parable, we might say it is telling us to find happiness inside regardless of the outward circumstances in which we find ourselves.  All fine and well, but to make the parable a story, Cinderella refuses to give up.

A second reversal is required to make a story…so there is an open invitation to a royal ball, and Cinderella jumps at the chance for even that brief moment of happiness.  What does she do?  She rummages through her mother’s old clothes (the mother who died and started it all) and fixes a dress; but then the obstacle steps in.  The Stepmother shreds the dress, and Cinderella’s hope is suddenly all gone.

This second reversal makes a parable into a story, but it is no place to end the story.  (The second reversal never is).  Somehow, we already side with the girl and feel that Cinderella should get to the ball.  This is the tension, and it is building and it needs to be resolved.

So, in comes the fairy godmother, Cinderella goes to the ball only to run at the stroke of twelve.  She returns home to her servitude, and might we end the story there?  Yes, but would it satisfy?  No.  With a taste of her objective still in her mouth, we are thoroughly on her side.  Now we want to see her out of her terrible situation.  We want justice.  We want her to succeed.

There needs to be a third reversal.  Why?  Because now we are rooting for her and a reversal at this point will build the tension in a way that will make the resolution most satisfying (something the second reversal cannot do).  If the second reversal makes a parable into a story, the third builds the tension to make the climax/resolution of the story worthwhile.

The Prince comes with the glass slipper, and if the story is told right, we think, great!  Now Cinderella will get her wish and the Stepmother will get her deserved come-uppance.  So what happens?  First, Cinderella is locked into her room, and when she escapes, the stepmother breaks the glass slipper in a kind of double whammy.  (Boo!  Hiss!)  How impossible for poor Cinderella…but slippers run in pairs.

Ta Da!!!!!  The Prince has no reason to doubt that this is the one he has been seeking.  No dubious slipper try-on scene.

There can, of course, be more than three reversals, but for a real story, it is hard to imagine less.  Third time is the charm.  With four reversals, the story might drag.  With five, it might start to get boring.  With six, a listener or reader might get frustrated.  Seven?  I think it is a sign of mental illness to try the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

There is another way in which good things come in threes.  That has to do with character formation and the relationships between characters that drive stories…but that will have to wait until the next post.

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