Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions on Twitter about the so-called rule of threes. And my inbox is seeing a lot more refrains used at least three times in picture books. For those of you who aren’t aware, the rule of threes is something many picture books employ. For instance, in the Three Bears, Goldilocks tries out three chairs, porridges, and beds. In the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs three times. It’s a story framing device that works pretty well for picture books.
But not all the time.
The rule of threes isn’t something that can be slapped into a manuscript with the expectation that it will help it stand. I think the hope is that kids will magically start chanting along with a book when it’s read out loud. And so many writers invent a phrase and just tuck it into a story willy-nilly. Many times, it isn’t necessary, and so comes across as forced.
When applied well, the rule of threes helps to provide some tension. In both the classic tales above, the story moves forward because of each thing being done. Each time G-Lox sits in a chair is a chance for her to cause trouble, which ups the ante little by little. Each time BB Wolf blows a house down, the stress level of the pigs (and reader) goes up.
A refrain is something different, but should be employed with equal choosiness. Another post, perhaps.
It’s true that I could name a dozen picture books that DO use the rule of threes. And I have nothing against it. It’s a great tool. But I don’t want writers to think it’s absolutely necessary or to lean on it when it’s not structurally sound. I want it, like all the tools in the box, to be used thoughtfully and not just because “you’re supposed to”. And I’m certainly not going to reject something that doesn’t use this “rule” on those grounds.
You wouldn’t use a waffle iron to make pizza, would you? (On second thought…)