Hamilton, Outlander, & The Rule of Three

I have a new obsession.

As a historian, it was probably inevitable. As a die-hard hip-hop hater, it definitely wasn’t.

That new obsession is Hamilton. 

chernowYes, I realize I’m late to the game, though in my defense I have been using clips from the musical in my Anthropology class to illustrate how different cultures can interpret historical events, and utilize different methods to celebrate them. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘who thought you could talk about the Founding Fathers using hip-hop?’ (But let’s face it:  I’ve long had a bit of a historical crush on the guy.) Along with that, I’ve also been reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography upon which the musical is based.

If you’ve never heard of Alexander Hamilton, I’m truly sorry for you and wonder which rock you’ve been living under for the past three years. In the 1980s, this was my favorite commercial (still is!):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLJ2Vjv2x18

And then, of course, a young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda came along and, in 2015, turned a forgotten Founding Father into a household name.

But, that’s not what I came to talk about today. Last week, during my 37th listen-through of the Hamilton soundtrack, something hit me hard:  Miranda’s incredible use of the Rule of Three in the musical.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2If you’re asking “Rule of Three? What’s that?”, here’s a short definition:  The Rule of Three adheres to the idea that we retain things best when iterated in threes. It can work at any level of anything you’re writing:  from sentence structure, to character development, to story arcs. It works best when it’s subtle, when the reader takes 37 times to cotton on to the idea. Trust me, it’s in their minds! You don’t need to hit them over the head with it.

A great example (at the sentence level) is the Declaration of Independence. We all know it by heart:

We hold these truths to be self -evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . 

There. In that one sentence, we see the Rule of Three used twice. There are three truths in this sentence, and three of those truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Read it silently. Read it aloud. Notice the rhythm? That’s what makes this such great writing. The rhythm helps us remember it as well. It drives the points home.

Another great example is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Notice especially the last three lines. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. And then, of course, the three-fold repetition of free at last. King was a gift writer and speaker. He knew what he was doing. (Fun Fact:  most of that speech was off the cuff. Improvised. For more on that bombshell, you can read this story from Forbes:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/#581ae2f25c5b)

My major lightbulb moment coincided with something Chernow said in the book, that Hamilton – at least in his early days – thought dueling was a preferred way to uphold one’s honor, and that in certain circumstances, one must fight. Chernow also alluded to the fact that we suspect Hamilton may have been involved in more duels than That Most Famous One, either as a participant, a second, or at the very least, an adviser.

Yet only three are used in the musical.

  • The first duel:  Hamilton acts as second to his best friend John Laurens, in a duel against Charles Lee. Lee was shot in the side, but survived; both men walked away with honor intact.
  • The second duel:  Hamilton advises his eldest son, Phillip, that if his honor needs to be upheld, he should fight; Phillip does, and is killed. This is a complete reversal of the first duel; we expected Phillip to survive, but he didn’t. Also, it’s presaged by the music:  the song for the first duel, ‘Ten Duel Commandments,’ is echoed later in the song ‘Take a Break,’ in which then-nine-year-old Phillip is learning to count in French.
  • The third duel:  Hamilton and Burr face off. And we all know how that ends.

Each time, with each duel, there’s rising tension – and rising stakes. The first time, Hamilton’s reputation, and best friend, are at risk; the second, his son; the third, his own life. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three. But it’s not the only way you can use it.

At the story arc level, the Rule of Three can be used in several different ways. You may use the same motif or theme three times. A character may appear three times. A similar scene may occur three times. The trick is to make sure that each of them serves a purpose. The first two times, the character may solve the problem easily, and then lose the third time. Think about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are three tests for the Champions to pass. Harry survives the first and second one, but the third one . . . This is a pattern known as ‘success-success-reversal.’ You set your readers up to expect your characters will succeed that third time – but of course, your readers are smart and they know that can’t happen. Therefore, you’re increasing the tension for them. They expect the reversal. Then, it’s up to you to pull it off in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying.

You could also use the Rule of Three to let your characters learn from their mistakes:  failure, failure, success. This can be used to demonstrate that a character has changed over the course of the story arc, and their new skills, or the ways in which they’ve changed, mean they’re ready for the climax of the book.

I’m considering how to use the Rule of Three in the novel I’m currently writing. It’s pretty powerful and effective if you can do it! Take, for example, Diana Gabaldon and Outlander. Claire Randall Fraser goes back in time, and meets Captain Jonathan Randall – the ancestor of Claire’s husband, and a ‘bloody filthy pervert,’ as Claire later describes him. In their first official meeting, he beats Claire; in their second, he tries to rape her. Gabaldon sets it up perfectly, so we know that if there is a third encounter with Jonathan Wolverton Randall, it will not be pleasant. Needless to say, there is a third encounter. It is not pleasant. It is also, however, not Claire who is in the most danger in that scene. Gabaldon escalates the tension, but also gives us a reversal.

So how can you use it? I’m still working on it! But I think I have at least one way figured out; it’s just going to take some cutting and some rewrites to make it work. But hopefully, when I’m done, those three scenes will be far more powerful, and advance the story more effectively, than the myriad little scenes I’d had before.

 

https://www.dianagabaldon.com/other-projects/the-cannibals-art-how-writing-really-works/the-cannibals-art-jamie-and-the-rule-of-three/  – this is probably where I first learned about the Rule of Three! Diana Gabaldon lays out how to create a perfect Rule of Three in your novel, using Outlander as an example.

https://amyraby.com/2013/08/26/writing-technique-the-rule-of-three/ – another good blog post about the Rule of Three

https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/rule-of-three-in-writing/ – this is a great little article that addresses the Rule of Three at the macro level – but you can see how powerful, yet subtle, it is! If it works in marketing, it can work in literature.

 

 

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A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712