Often a stumbling block in fiction is too much description in one go. It is possible to have a style of writing that is description heavy, and this is perfectly valid, often it’s found in literary fiction which tends towards a slower pace than a genre such as thriller. It can flow well and be very lyrical, but not all writers have a description heavy style and then the problem can become how to have enough description to give a sense of things without having more than we want.

We’ve looked at ways of breaking apart setting description by having character moves around and interact with the setting (see previous article). We’ve also considered how what we describe can tell us about characters and their perspective on the world (see previous article). But how can we blend these together to break up our description?

Once again we come back to the question of: Does the reader need to know this? This question arises because not everything needs describing. A character may have an interest in collectable teapots and notices theses when they enter the scene, do we need to describe the entire collection of teapots? Probably not. Even if we spread out the details of the teapots that’s likely to be a lot of teapots in one scene. So it becomes question of whether or not we can show the character’s interest without describing all the teapots.

One of the ways we can do this is to describe a small number of teapots and this is where we arrive at The Rule of Three. This hasn’t got anything to do with having to describe three teapots, we can describe as many as we feel appropriate. The Rule of Three refers to the fact that the human brain quite likes points being made in threes, in part, because it creates a nice rhythm. Threes appear throughout writing, trio teams are popular, the romantic triangle, the three point slogan. Oh, and there’s another three.

I repeat The Rule of Three doesn’t mean we always have to describe in threes, sometimes one has more impact, or four a better rhythm, or we have too much information to fit into the three pattern. However, it’s worth bearing in mind when we’ve got multiple things to describe but don’t want to have large paragraphs of description.

The Rule of Three doesn’t solely apply to lists of three, we can also scatter three points through a scene and the human brain is likely to pick it up. So we could spread the description of those three teapots through the scene, perhaps the character is considering a display of them as they talk and occasionally one in particular catches their eye. A comparison might be triangulation points on a map, teapots have been mentioned three times in this scene they must be significant to the character or to the story in some other way. Although we might not consciously recognise it our brain does.

Another thing we can do with The Rule of Three is to hide information in an information sandwich. Often in three points it’s the final point that tends to be emphasised. So, if we want to put emphasis on a point of description third is a good place to put it. If we have information that is important later on but we don’t necessarily want attention drawing to the middle of the three points is can a good place like its hiding down the gap in the settee cushions. We can see it if we look for it but we’re more likely to look at the big cushions first.

We can play with The Rule of Three or not use it at all, as with any writing technique. Although, not using it at all might be difficult, such is the appeal to the human brain I’ve used it more than once in this article without thinking about it.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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