The Rule of Three: When to Use It or Lose It in Picture Book Writing

I have to admit it — when it comes to writing a fiction picture book, I’m a stickler for the Rule of 3.  For those of you who don’t know what that is it is the idea that things should come in threes.  The example that Heather Alexander gives in her most recent blog post, comes from Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Most everything that Goldilocks does, she does in threes –elephant-1130091_1920– sitting in the chairs, tasting the porridge, testing out the beds.  The idea is that three of something will create tension and strengthen the story.

And that’s all well and good, when it works.  Alexander points out that the problem comes when authors try to force threes into a story when it doesn’t make sense to repeat a chorus or build on a particular action.  Adding multiples that aren’t needed just makes the story feel

Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be my problem.  My problem is that I want to limit things, specifically my POV character’s attempts to solve a problem, to three.  The first attempt fails.  The second attempt builds on the first attempt but it too fails.  The third attempt builds on the two preceding attempts and, although things may appear chancy, we have success and everyone rides off into the sunset.

Sadly, my critique group claims that limiting my character to three attempts doesn’t always work.  Sometimes there needs to be more to truly build the tension.  I’d love to say that I was receptive to this feedback but I was so hung up on “the rule of three” that I don’t think I studied my tension — did it rise sufficiently or didn’t it?  Nope.  I just wasn’t going to go above three.

If I may take Alexander’s lesson and make it my own — use three to build the tension when it works.  When it doesn’t, go with more or less.  The goal is to have a workable story not to create a celebration of the number three.