Why Three is the Charm

With the day’s “must-dos” behind me today, I wanted to shake out the cobwebs and get my mind in gear for a couple of writing challenges that await. I’ve made up my mind to try to contend in a TV pilot contest and, as far as I know, I still have a script to write for a couple of producers whose bread and butter are reality shows and commercials, but who has a passion project they want to make into a third feature film outing. (This gift fell into my lap, not by dint of furious marketing effort, but via a referral from a writer who felt it was not his type of story. But my tackling the script writing in toto has been delayed by various circumstances which have arisen since then.) So, amidst my recent setbacks, urgent pursuits and random distractions lately, I had been thinking of this script  I need to be writing, that I had the theme I wanted to make all the incidents I’ve been charged with conjuring coherent. But I wanted to explore the plot type a bit and confirm the approach. So, I reached into the book collection for 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias. It actually provided me with confirmation that I’m out to write a story which is, essentially, a “quest,” and it reminded me of a couple of requirements that go with that classic story form.

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B. Tobias

But it also helped me in terms of conceptualizing the TV pilot. I have a couple of ideas there, one of which involves the revival (always recycle!) of the core idea of the web series that wasn’t, which I mentioned in my earlier post, Learn from My Failure. The ensemble included seven characters, and while I was having a look at the plot types, I also thought to consult Chapter Five, where Tobias lays out the dynamics of the number of characters (at least major characters) in a story. After a bit of mathematical extrapolating, he suggests that a trio, three major characters, are the ideal, allowing for just enough possibilities to keep things interesting, while not providing so many as to allow characters to become lost in a miasma of complications.

With two characters, he explains, the writer is stuck with a narrow situation of exploring character A’s relationship to character B, and character B’s relationship to character A. Add just one more character, however, and the possibilities multiply by three. Suddenly, you have a palette of story possibility consisting of the colors:

  • A’s relationship to B
  • B’s relationship to A
  • A’s relationship to C
  • B’s relationship to C
  • C’s relationship to A
  • C’s relationship to B

Once you have add one more character to your plot mix, that fourth multiplies the possibilities by two. So, you add the following relationships as grounds for exploration:

  • A’s relationship to B, and B’s to A
  • A’s relationship to C, and C’s to A
  • A’s relationship to D, and D’s to A
  • B’s relationship to C, and C’s to B
  • B’s relationship to D, and D’s to B
  • C’s relationship to D, and D’s to C

As the author points out, there is no need to feel obligated to explore all the possiblities of all these relationships. However, his lists make the point of how tangled the web can become, and how quickly, which is why most movies revolve around, essentially, a hero, a villain, and a love interest. Most often, other characters appear in “supporting roles,” lending help and hindrances as the hero pursues the love interest and/ or his major goal.

Three is also the perfect number of turning points to keep an audience interested. The protagonist can suffer disequilibrium, make a little headway against it, then we find out that the problem’s much harder than we thought, and the hero goes in deeper, appearing to suffer crushing defeat only to have had an earlier development help him turn things around (at least usually). Forward motion, setback, ultimate confrontation. Done. Less than that is lacking, and more than that becomes boring.

Aside from exploring the necessary dynamics of twenty classic plot types and explaining why three’s the charm, Tobias’s book is also of value for explaining “the lowest common plot denominators” in Chapter Two. These are nitty-gritty basics which make perfect sense as he explains that it is necessary to make tension fuel your plot; create tension through opposition; make tension grow as opposition increases; make change the point of your story; make sure when something happens in your story, that it’s important; make the causal look casual; leave Lady Luck out of the resolution; and make sure it’s your main character who performs the central action of the climax. These factors are all important to every commercial story intended for any medium. It’s all common sense, except when it’s forgotten. That’s why I like keeping lists and books like this one handy.

Peace out.


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