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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST


The Rule of Thirds

by Allen Rolf

A primer on creating short story plots

If you've ever studied art, musical composition, or drama, you're probably familiar with the Rule of Thirds. This is a concept developed by the Classical Greeks as to how a composition should be perfectly balanced. It is equally applicable to writing, particularly to writing fiction.

The modern short story is composed in three parts just as modern plays are presented in three acts. The division of the thirds from the story-line and actual writing are identical. Act one of a play is the introduction of characters, development of empathy with the audience; the second act is devoted to presenting a problem which the hero must solve; the third act deals with a believable solution and conclusion.

The plot of a short fiction story follows the same model, often described as 1) Thesis, 2) Anti-thesis, and 3) Synthesis. In real life, this can be stated as 1) Boy meets girl, boy wants girl, boy wants girl 2) Boy encounters obstacles and 3) boy overcomes obstacles and wins girl. Let's quickly develop a simple plot outline for a story we might write and sell to a romance magazine.

First, since romance magazines are read mostly by women, we would be wise in having our main character, or protagonist, a woman. Reworking the above plot, it becomes: 1) Girl meets boy, Girl wants boy 2) Girl faces obstacles, 3) Girl overcomes obstalces and wins boy. Now we must put our primary character, the heroine, on a stage with the boy who is not only the prize, but an important secondary character. Arbitrarily, we will introduce a third secondary character, a girl, who will act as villain, or antagonist, in the story.

Now, for the stage on which our drama is acted out. In romance fiction, readers like to read about new and exotic places. Romance fiction contains a high degree of fantasy. Let's suppose that we have just been to Cancun and know about what it is like to vacation there. With the plot outline, characters, and a stage, we can easily create a story line.

Our heroine, Karen, is a secretary from Evansville, Il who has worked hard for a year to afford a 10-day dream vacation in Cancun. The story can begin with Karen lounging on the terrace of the Americana Hotel on the white sand beach of the blue Caribbean. She has fulfilled her dream, but something is not right. She has no one to share her vacation with.

How we open and close this scene depends on the view point we take as the story narrator. We can use the first person, being Karen; or we can use the third person (omniscient) view where we are seeing the play from the audience, but have the divine ability to also go into any of the characters head to explain their thoughts and emotions.

First person narration is fairly simple to handle, we merely imagine that we are Karen and tell about Karen's thoughts and emotions as she acts out the scenes. The problem is we can only know what is going on from what Karen sees and hears. The third person is a little more difficult. It is easy to confuse the reader by going into the heads of more than one character. A good way to handle this scene would be to introduce minor characters, such as an elderly couple, who Karen can speak to and give information about why she is in Cancun, while at the same time we can go inside Karen's head to examine her thoughts and emotions. Remember that in any scene of a short story it is important to have each word give information to the reader as well as move the story forward.

In the first scene of our story, we have introduced Karen upon the stage and given a reason why the story is important ... Karen has reached her goal but something is missing. Let us build the second scene where we will introduce John, the prize. It is important that John be bigger than life.

Karen attends a Mayan celebration in the main ball room of the Americana. There are traditional Mayan dancers, music, and foods. Here she by chance meets John, a successful young Chicago trial lawyer. John must be an ideal batchelor; handsome, sophisticated, and rich. To the reader, he must be a desirable prize worth fighting for.

We have purposely placed John as from Chicago to enhance the story reality. Chicago and Evansville are much closer to each other than Evansville and San Francisco!

John walks Karen to her room after the celebration and asks in a romantic scene if he can see her again. She replies yes. During the next few days Karen and John go para-sailing, (John comes on very patient and reassuring), take a tour of the Mayan ruins at Tulum (a beautiful and romantic place), and have a romantic dinner on the moonlit beach. Karen knows that she is falling in love with John but is hesitant to express her feelings to him.

Now we open act two of our story by introducing Marsha, the antagonist, who is a wealthy socialite who knows John from parties in Chicago. Marsha immediately takes control of John who seems to be infatuated by her attention. Over the next few days, Karen sees John and Marsha together continuously. Karen, on the side-lines, is miserable and knows that she has lost the man she came to Cancun to meet. If only she had the confidence to tell John how she felt!

Act 3 (The Solution): With only a day left to her vacation, Karen decides to see John one last time to tell him goodby. It will be a bittersweet parting. The meeting is on the beach where John and Karen had their romantic candlelit dinner. As Karen turns to leave, John suddenly asks her to wait. He admits his devotion to Karen explaining that he was afraid to express it before now because of fear of rejection. Karen, too, admits her love and the story ends with the couple embracing on the moonlit white sand beach of Cancun, a full moon rising over the blue waters.

A good short story should always have a moral, or life-lesson if you will, and this theme should be cleverly woven through the entire story, though never actually revealed by the writer. The lesson of this story is people often loose the prize of their life because they fail to communicate their true feelings.

Once you understand the Rule of Thirds, you can generate an endless flow of short story fiction. Here are a couple of variations:

Mary needs to earn $100 to buy her mother a birthday gift, and decides to enter a pie in a cooking contest at the state fair. Mary overcomes a series of problems to get the pie prepared in time, only to find that her main competitor in the pie contest is an older woman who has won the $100 first place prize four years in a row. Mary, at first bitter, comes to the conclusion that winning is not nearly as important as competing and accepts the fact that she may not win. She wins the $100 and buys the birthday gift. In the final scene her mother, realizing what Mary has done, in tears assures Mary that she would always be proud of her daughter even if she had lost the contest.

Bill goes into the jungle and meets a hungry man-eating tiger. Bill is chased and eaten by the tiger and the story ends! Horrible story, you say! Well, true the story of Bill and the tiger did not have a happy ending, but the writer may well have only wanted to illustrate the terror of being stalked by a man-eating tiger who represents a relentless evil force in the world. The lesson may well be that a man must be brave in a cruel unrelenting world even to death.

Once a writer understands the Rule of Thirds and how it applies to a story's structure and plot, he can concentrate on learning how to write scenes and handling dialogue, fairly easy to learn with practice.

One fertile ground for plot ideas is the Old Testament. In Proverbs alone, a writer can take the Rule of Thirds and write short stories for a lifetime! Take a look and see if you agree!

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