Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meta Concepts: Rule of Three

By now you've heard us reference the Rule of Three so often it's become a drinking game (which we'll suspend for the duration of this essay because we love you and your livers), but for those of you who don't hail from our particular sub-sector of geekdom you might not be familiar with it. Or you might, but not in that phrasing. What we mean by "Rule of Three" is simply this: a design flaw/feature of human brains is to see patterns in things, and many of those patterns are numerical. Significant numbers feature heavily in fiction, whether written or oral tradition or visual; indeed, they can feature heavily in real life when people seek out meaning in the numbers or numbers of things in their lives. For the purposes of storytelling, though, the significant numbers are generally limited to seven, five, four, and three. And for the purposes of today's essay, we'll be dealing with the number three.

The Rule of Three is one of the simplest storytelling devices: repetition in threes to emphasize the importance of a thing, group, or concept. It appears in many cultures (most of them western European, but not all), religions, and bodies of work. For religious forms you have the Holy Trinity, the Maiden Mother and Crone, three Wise Men/Kings, three Marys at the crucifixion, three pilgrimage holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot), Abraham Isaac and Jacob. For popular fiction you have the Three Musketeers, Han Luke and Leia, Larry Moe and Curly, the Billy Goats Gruff, the three witches in Macbeth. On and on you can find this in works both serious and less so, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail ("Three shall be the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be three!"). Terry Gilliam was an accomplished Arthurian scholar, he knew what he was talking about! Well, most of the time. Even in psychology and philosophy you have the Freudian concepts of the Id, Ego, and Superego, as well as the Kant or Hegelian or whoever first devised it (there's some argument about that) dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I'll go into more on that later. We have the saying that once is chance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action or conspiracy or whatever you want to call it. Even that, there, you see what I did in that last sentence? Three things make a pattern.

Which is the core of it, really. For the human mind, in most cases, three is the minimum repetition necessary to make a pattern. This technique likely goes back to the days when stories were chiefly oral tradition, saying a thing three times or using a structure three times was the easiest way to both get the message across and teach the next generation. Nowadays, we use it to point the reader or viewer in the direction we want them to look. Or to lay a false trail while using it in subtler ways to indicate the correct narrative arc.

We'll start with three things in Grimm, because, um, why not. Right away you have several overall threes, most of them in the form of three-man-bands. You can arrange them as Wu-Hank-Nick at the precinct or Nick-Monroe-Rosalee for non-precinct Wesen-based business. You could even arrange them, now that Hank is in on the Masquerade, as Nick-Hank-Monroe. On the antagonist's position you had Renard-Adalind-Catherine for a little while, though that seems to be shifting and time will tell if we have another big bad Triumvirate. You have the power-playing trio of Lauffeuer, Verrat, and Grimms, with Royals apparently taking sides on all sides. (Or is that Lauffeuer, Royals, and Grimms, with the Verrat actually working for the Royals? Time may tell, or it may not.) You have the triple set of roles Nick is trying to balance between being a Grimm, being a cop, and being a good boyfriend. And last but sadly not least you have the menage a trois that's building between Nick, Juliette, and Renard. We wish you didn't, but there it is.

Rule of Three pops up in other ways, too, especially in the story telling. Recently La Llorona took three children, and if you want to get down to the small details in the very beginning of the episode the father noticed her leading his son away on the third time he surfaced. There are three bad wolves and three somewhat naughty bears (notably in this instance we're led to believe it's father-mother-son, when in actuality it's mother-son-son's friend), and three drug dealers. There are three boys in the plot to scare (who ultimately end up killing) the school music teacher, one to be the obnoxious leader, one to back him up, and one to panic and cause the other two to yell at him. Three Coins in a Fuchsbau. Three kidnap victims in Last Grimm Standing. Three victims of Ryan the Intern's mad Grimming spree, though thankfully not three bodies on the ground because we love Bud the Eisbieber. Come to think of it, Bud's commonly seen with two Eisbieber friends, I wonder why? No, really, I could go on and on and on. Because this is a show based on fairy tales and myths, I expect there to be even more significant threes. Such as the three sisters in that Cinderella episode that never happened I have no idea what you're talking about.

In some cases, even, we see that three reduced to two goes slightly awry. Witness the example of the Damonfeuer, who have been deprived of their third (the mother) and are as a result just a little bit off the rails. Angelina, never the most stable to begin with, enters a downward spiral at the loss of her two brothers.  While Nick is able to continue on pretty much as before with his two triumvirates supporting him, Kelly's loss of her husband and son seems to have driven her similarly and homicidally sideways of center. Whatever stability the structure of three people gives, taking away even one of those seems to send the remaining person or people into a destructive tailspin.

It also occurs to me at this point that you could simply search through all our episode recaplyses for every time we write Rule of Three. But why bother when I'm here to pick out the examples for you? In Haven, assuming you're here for both or at least willing to sit through my babbling about the show you don't watch, we have the three faces of Eve AudSarLu, Sarah and Lucy and Audrey. We have the central trinity and as far as I can tell everyone's OT3 (one true threesome), Audrey Duke and Nathan. We have the three Wendigo girls. We have the three loves of Duke's life, Julia and Evi and Audrey. We have three (as far as we know or have referenced) surviving families from the founding of Haven, even, although this is more shaky than most: Glendower, Crocker, and Teagues. Teagues, though, we only have the creepy brothers' word for, and I do in fact trust them about as far as I could throw the Herald building. Still, it would be one way for them to know as much as they do, and we know the Glendowers and the Crockers go back at least to colonial times because a colonial Glendower (who are the fish people if you didn't remember) made the glow-in-the-dark Crocker Box with the pointy toy surprises. Even in the haunted house episode we have the main trinity, we have the secondary trinity of Claire and Tommy and Jordan, and we have the outside trinity of Dwight, Dave, and Vince. That episode was rife with threes, as you may have noticed from reading A's recaplysis.

Let's see, what other threes can we find in Haven. The musician in Harmony leaves with three passengers on his boat. There are three victims of the pyromaniac in The Hand You're Dealt. Come to think of it, there are three victims a lot of the time.  Three shown or named dead victims of the creepy organ farmer. Three living victims of the creepy organ farmer. Three dead copies in Friend or Faux (before the copy kills himself, essentially, by killing the original.) Three babies in Ball and Chain though fortunately not three dead men. Three people killed (though only two resurrected) in the blackmail scheme run by the older sister in Magic Hour. Three current victims of the Bolt Gun Killer, at least whose parts went into Frankenaudrey. Often, and apparently in Haven as well, one body makes a potential murder, two bodies makes a potential connection, three bodies make a potential serial killer or other big, episode-worthy problem. Which,  in and of itself, is a subset of the Rule of Three that applies largely to crime dramas and is predictable both in its placement of each of the three victims and in the action that surrounds it.

This subset manifestation takes its cue from three-act plays, which have their own structure that have been transposed onto television episodes or shorter form novels, or in this case, procedural dramas. In procedural shows you often have bodies and/or strong revelations show up in three places, the end of the introduction or teaser, the end of the first act, and the end of the second act. The third act wraps it up, sometimes followed by a coda, but many procedurals and other formula serials follow that pattern of having the action ramp up in three stages, with three points of high tension. Haven and Grimm are both more or less crime dramas, with Haven being less and Grimm being more, and we see this version of the Rule of Three show up in both of them.

I have no doubt that we also are all very familiar with the book/movie concept of the trilogy. Part one sets the stage and gives us the glorious whatever, part two is generally seen as the weakest part because it has to make things dire and yet keep us rooting for the characters and do both without a conclusion, because part three of course is the triumphant conclusion. This is the large version of the three-part dramatic arc. Fiction is commonly described in three major and two minor stages (remember how I said there are other significant numbers, and five is one of them?), exposition, climax, and denouement, with rising and falling action between. This comes from German writer Gustav Freytag's dramatic pyramid, but also goes back as far as Aristotle who described a whole piece as something that has a beginning, middle, and end.  For those of you who've been watching the saga of Ryan the What-The-Fuck-Is-That (Lebensauger) you've heard us refer to him as Chekhov's Intern, which in turn refers to the bit of wisdom commonly attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov: if you put a gun (intern) on the mantel in the first act, it (he) must go off by the third. The application of this means that if you have a plot element or character or some other thing you're bringing to the audience's attention, it should be used at some point in the work, and it's a good rule of thumb at least to start with and fall back on. But note the timing there, the third act.

Three makes a pattern. Not only does three make a pattern, three often provides the genesis for a new pattern, meaning it serves as a transition or a transitory structure between one work and the next. Remember that dialectic I was talking about? In its simplest form, the dialectic is this: You begin with a thesis, a statement or concept intended to be or meant to be taken as true. Then you bring in an anti-thesis, a statement or concept that contradicts the first. The conflict between the two, ideally, provides the synthesis for the next thesis. Babylon 5 put this most blatantly and succinctly, I think, when a secondary character describes three of the main characters thusly: "You are the one who was. You are the one who is. And you are the one who will be. You are the beginning of the story and the middle of the story and the end of the story, that creates the next great story." In the beginning of the story you have the thesis, as the story progresses you discover the anti-thesis, and at the end of the story you have the synthesis of the next great story. And so it goes.

Enduring and powerful storytelling often comes down to skilled the execution of a few core concepts. Telling a story can be an elaborate process, but the old techniques have remained in use for all those centuries because they are effective. From Aristotle on down through Casablanca the structure that results from laying out a concept into three parts has been used as a backbone, a spotlight, a knee-jerk go-to when you have no other ideas as to what goes where and in what order. (A: Or even when you do and feel like making a point. I've given up on my toes for the purposes of this essay.) (K: If the show-writers can do it, so can I.) (A: Blogger's privilege, yes dear.)


Now go forth and be enlightened.

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