Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Stephen D. Rogers is the author of SHOT TO DEATH and more than six hundred shorter pieces. It is our pleasure to welcome him to our blog.

Three Times Three is Nine

by Stephen D. Rogers   

The other day, I read a story written by my nine-year-old daughter. The character in the story, searching for her hamster, looked under the couch, behind the bookcase, and in the closet.

"The rule of three."


I sometimes think that "what?" is my daughter's default setting. "You had the character search three places for her missing hamster. Three is a magic number. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They consist of dialogue, action, and description."

"Characters lie, tell the truth, and leave something out."

She shrugged. Which is mime for "what?"

"You might not even have understood what you were doing. That's because you've learned the Rule of Three even though you've never been taught it. And that's because examples of the magical three are everywhere. Every joke you tell. Every story you read. Every show you watch."

"Can I watch TV?"

"No." The Rule of No is also very important. "Because we've soaked up hundreds if not millions of these tripod structures, we expect them. If your character had only looked in two places, readers might have thought she didn't try hard enough to find her hamster."

"What if she found the hamster in the second place she looked?"

"Then you'd add a new second place and make where she found her hamster the third. If at first you don't succeed (one), try (two), try again (three). Look at Nancy Drew. There are three people in her house: Nancy, Dad, and Hannah Gruen. They are three friends: Nancy, Bess, and George."

"Don't forget Ned."

"Ned has three letters."


"Dad has three letters."


"Sorry, but that has four. So let's say Nancy has a mystery to solve. What are some of the things she's going to do?"

"Look for clues."

"That's one."

"Talk to people."

"That's two."

"I don't know."

"How about seek help from others? Maybe Nancy will discuss the case with her father or the police or someone who's an expert in a subject related to the investigation. Or maybe not. But whatever you decide the third thing is going to be, you'll make your story stronger. A tricycle is more stable than a bicycle. In your room, you have a three-legged stool. You don't have a two-legged stool."

"I know someone who can balance on one stilt."

"I can't even balance on two. But I could on three. Probably."

"You'd probably fall."

"But I'd climb back up. Fall again. And then climb back up and stay. That's a story. If I succeeded the first time, the challenge was too easy. If I succeeded the second time, it could have been luck. But if I don't succeed until the third time, I've earned that prize. I've overcome the urge to quit and I've conquered those stilts. Now, standing astride them, I march through the lava pit of death."

"But what if you try three million, seven hundred and forty-nine thousand times, and you still can't stand on the stilts?"

"Then I'd go back to writing. After all, what editor is going to pay me to walk on stilts?"

Stephen D. Rogers is the author of SHOT TO DEATH  and my be reached at his website,    which includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information. He is teaching a class called Knock'en Dead:Writing Mystery and Suspense at the Writers U July 5-30th.


Ruby Johnson said...

What a great way of showing how to plot a mystery! Thanks for a great post.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Ruby,

There's as many ways to write a mystery as there are ways to commit a crime. We writers are fortunate in that we can shred our first drafts.


Anonymous said...

Great blog. I love the uniqueness and don't think I'll ever forget the rule of three again.

Also, the characters' dialogue was so real I could 'see' you and your daughter having this discussion.

Pat Marinelli

Janice said...

I agree with Ruby. My question is do you always have to have other characters doing something even if the action is between two/three main characters? Does that make sense?? Help... :)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Pat,

Just wait until next time when I talk about the Rule of Clean Your Room.


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Janice,

I've found a few tricks to handle that. The non-involved party can be focused on the main action (staring in disbelief or laughing or waiting to see if they need to call the police). The non-involved party can be sidelined by something outside the main action (untying a knot or trying to get a hair out of their mouth or reading the manual to solve an earlier problem).

What you don't want is for the other characters to disappear as if they both froze and turned invisible. Even if they DO become invisible to the participants caught up in the main action, they should have how they spent their time explained once the main action breaks up.

Does any of this help?


Anonymous said...

Could you speak on your technic of planting clues and red herrings in a mystery.

Janice said...

Thank you Steven!! That's been driving me crazy, but you answered my question completely.. Thanks again!! :)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Jean,

There are a number of approaches to planting clues and red herrings. There'd have to be or the readers would always know where to look. :)

Since I'm teaching an online class next month on this subject (Knock 'Em Dead: Write Mystery and Suspense,, I don't want to give away the store but....

Clues can be salted into a story using a variety of methods.
Dialogue allows you to place clues in what's said and what's not
said. Description allows you to place clues by mentioning what's
there and not there. Action allows you to place clues by showing
how people move and react.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a bunch!

Anonymous said...

I've taken Stephen's class and I highly recommend it.

Pat Marinelli

Judy Sizemore said...

Thanks for a very entertaining lesson in writing. Where were you when i was in school?

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Judy,

I was probably staring out the window, coming up with stories.


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