Rumpelstiltskin and the Rule of Three

Growing up, one of my favorite children’s books was Rumpelstiltskin. Specifically, it was the version of Rumpelstiltskin by Edith Tarcov and illustrated by Edward Gorey. The reason it was among my favorites was because it came with a cassette tape audio version of the book.

“When you hear the beep, turn the page. Beeeeep.”

I wore that cassette out. I can still pull bits and pieces from the story out and recite them with the same inflections as were on the tape. And I loved the simple illustrations long before I discovered my love for all things Edward Gorey.

Edith Tarcov’s version was good for many reasons, but one that I especially appreciate is the fact that she stayed true to the original story.

The story goes like this:

A poor miller with a beautiful daughter wants to impress the king who stops by so he tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. So the king takes the miller’s daughter to the castle and locks her in a room with a pile of straw and a spinning wheel and tells her that if she spins the straw into gold by morning, she can live.

Now, she doesn’t really know how to spin straw into gold, so she starts crying. Just then a funny little man walks in and offers to spin the straw into gold for her in exchange for her ring. Spin, spin, spin, the job is done. The king is pleased, but greedy, so he takes her to a larger room with more straw and the process repeats, this time the funny little man accepts a necklace for payment. The third day, the miller’s daughter is sitting in a large room with lots of straw and still no skill for spinning, but she has nothing of value to exchange for the funny little man to do the deed for her, so she agrees to give him her first baby when she is made queen. Spin, spin, spin, the king is pleased and marries the miller’s daughter.

A year goes by. The new queen has a baby but forgets the little man and her promise until the funny little man shows up to claim his wages. The queen begs and pleads for a way out of their arrangement, and the little man relents. “If you can guess my name in three days,” he says, “you may keep your baby.” So the queen sends out the messenger to collect all the names of the kingdom. First night, no luck. The messenger goes back out for all the strange names. Again, no luck. The third night, he doesn’t get any new names, but he does overhear the little man singing in the forest, and the little man’s song tells his name. The queen uses the name to get out of the baby deal, the little man stomps himself into the ground and no one has seen him since.

Forgive me for telling the whole thing, but I wanted you to see the Rule of Three in action. It occurs all throughout the story. First, the miller’s daughter is subjected to three rooms of straw, over three nights, during which she gives three gifts to the funny little man. Then, when she is queen, she has three nights to come up with the little man’s name.

But why three?

Three is a number with a lot of baggage. We experience life in three dimensions. In mathematics, it is the first unique prime number, triangles have three sides and three points, and pi starts with it. Earth is the third planet from the sun. Three is quite popular in religious circles. But in writing and storytelling, three has other special properties.

Three is the smallest number needed to see a pattern in action. Something happens once, it has no significance. Twice, it’s a fluke. Three times, that’s a pattern. And humans are trained to look for patterns. We love them!

So when a story makes use of the natural inclination to seek out a pattern, it makes the story better and more memorable. In serious stories, the Rule of Three can create suspense. We always feel like we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. In humor stories, we are surprised when the third part is incongruous with the first two.

As I dig into the Rule of Three, I wonder if I have used it in my writing. I wonder if I haven’t and I need to. I wonder if saying “I wonder” three sentences in a row is too much or just right. It feels right to me.

Anyway, now that you know about the Rule of Three, I’d love to hear how either consciously or subconsciously you have seen it in action. Leave me a comment… or three.


The Writing Processes of Vonnegut, Pratchett, Gorey, and Tolkien in Links

In an interview this week with a fellow blogger, I was asked who inspires me. I answered with four different authors, each chosen for a different reason (in order to find out what those reasons are, you’ll have to read the interview). This week, I decided to seek out any wisdom that my four favorites might have to share on the topic of writing.

I was introduced to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut in an ethics course offered by the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University in my freshman year. We read Slaughterhouse Five and explored the morality represented within its pages. I’ve always enjoyed books, but I haven’t always enjoyed them when they were required reading for school. When I first read Slaughterhouse Five though, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read it twice before the due date and then again before the end of the semester. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time…” Even just talking about Vonnegut’s work now makes me want to pick up a copy and read it over again. The link here features Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing. If you are a writer, I hope you click through.

It was sometime in my first year of working at Baker Book House when a coworker exposed me to the genius of Terry Pratchett. I think we were talking about sci-fi and fantasy stories when she told me that she was doing a paper for one of her literature classes on the topic of rule consistency when creating a fantasy world. “It doesn’t need to be just like it is in the real world, but it needs to be consistent within itself,” she said. She went on to tell me that she was using the works of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as an example of consistency. When no flicker of recognition flashed on my face, she insisted that I read some. The next day, she brought me three books. “When you finish one of these, you are going to want another to start on right away,” she said. She was right. This link is for an interview that Pratchett did a few years back, and the relevant portion for writers begins about midway down the page.

I ran across Edward Gorey in college on a random excursion with my roommate, friend, and sometime muse, Adam. Together, we would visit Barnes and Noble and search through the bargain racks for anything that looked interesting. I picked up one of the Amphigorey books and was instantly in love with the mixture of dark humor, brilliant illustrations, and tales that forced the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Alas, I could not find any advice to authors from Edward Gorey, but this link is for his book The Unstrung Harp or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, in which Gorey illustrates the creative process of novel-writing though at the time he wrote this story, he himself had never written a novel. Still, it isn’t far from the truth.

My last author for this list is actually the one that I read earliest in my life. My dad handed me a copy of The Hobbit when I was in 7th or 8th grade and told me that I might enjoy it. I devoured it. Tolkien’s style, characters, and voice drew me in (as they do for anyone who dares to read The Hobbit). After that, my dad gave me a copy of The Fellowship of the Rings which I breezed through as well. And then I hit The Two Towers and got bogged down along with Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes. Sadly, I set the series down for a full year before attempting another go. But by that time, I had forgotten half of the details of the story, so I decided to start the whole thing again from the beginning. The Hobbit, check. The Fellowship of the Ring, check. The Two Towers, I powered through it this time, check. After I finished The Return of the King, I was sad the journey was over. LOTR was all I could talk about with my dad for weeks. And then he asked if I knew about the Silmarillion, which I hadn’t. So I decided to start again with The Hobbit, plowed through LOTR, and picked up the Silmarillion. Oh man, I was in nerd heaven. So many things in LOTR were explained, origins of the races, where the wizards came from, what a Balrog is, tales from the first and second ages of the world before the third age (when LOTR is set)! I am helplessly a Tolkien fan, so when I saw this post on Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers by the wonderful blogger, Roger Colby, I knew that it was going to be good. Colby culled through Tolkien’s writings and interviews where he discussed his craft and came up with a solid list for writers to use as a reference. Be sure to check it out, as well as the rest of his site.

How I did this week. Also, fun links!Last, for my writing report card, I’m going to give myself a B+ for the week.

I got the most hits in one day to date on Wednesday, I did a blog swap with another blogger, and I had fresh content everyday. The only thing was that I didn’t get a chance to write much on my novel, but I’m not going to let that get me down. Good job, me!