Friday, May 24, 2019

How to Tell a Story: Follow the Rule of Three

Storytelling is an ancient art that takes lots of practice

Recently I’ve attended some local storytelling events—mostly ones that mimic the NPR “Moth” Radio Hour stories. People gather around to tell true stories about events they’ve experienced. Alcohol or caffeine may be involved. 

I say they “mimic” the Moth Radio Hour to be polite. It’s amazing how many people have no clue what storytelling is. They don’t know there's a world of difference between telling an entertaining story and blathering on about that time back in 1972 when you and your buddies dropped acid on that fishing trip and there was a bear…except it was a raccoon...and Fred thought it was a hat...and Kevin started singing the Davy Crockett song...and you got in a fight over whether Davy "kilt him a bear" or "built him a bar" when he was only three...

And eventually the bored crowd semi-politely claps you off the stage.

After a particularly excruciating night of “Old Men Falling off a Train of Thought” at a local coffee house, I sat down to write this handy guide.

I never found a way to present this diplomatically and the gatherings stopped soon after. But if you have any friends who love to talk, but need some help in shaping that talk into an actual story people want to hear, maybe you can point them in this direction.

It also helps newish writers make sure their WIP doesn’t get derailed following that fascinating character who just showed up and you've followed him down a rabbit hole and you have no clue where any of it is going…

To Tell a Story, Follow the Rule of Three

The backbone of any story, whether it's an anecdote, play, or novel is the three-act structure.

There's an old saw in the theater that describes it this way, "Act I—Get your character up a tree; Act II—throw rocks at him; Act III—get him down again."

And it still works.

Act I:  Get Your Character up a Tree

Get your protagonist up a tree

This is the set-up: a.k.a. the inciting incident or "call to adventure." 

Tell us who your protagonist is and what s/he wants. (And yes, you need a protagonist. One.) A story needs less exposition than you think. We don't need anybody's life story—just tell us the stuff about the characters that's relevant to getting them up and down that tree.

When you're telling a story live, it helps to have the first line prepared, so you don't waste time throat-clearing. Consider some classic first lines:

  • "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." (Out of Africa)
  • ''In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.'' (A River Runs Through It)
  • "Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed." (The Beverly Hillbillies)
So you've got their attention. Now there's something your character wants that gets him up that tree. Figure out what it is, and that's your inciting incident.

Act II: Throw Rocks at Him

Gather a lot of rocks if you want a long story

This is where you build tension.  

As  your hero tries to get what he wants, introduce one obstacle after another. 
  • S/he may meet mentors/helpers who offer aid and or complications. But don't let them hijack the story.
  • Each incident should be more intense than the one before. Bigger and bigger rocks! 
  • Don't take any detours away from the tree unless they're relevant to the goal or the outcome.

Yes, I know you're entranced by that rabbit and you're dying to follow him down that intriguing hole. But don't do it unless the rabbit will bring you back to the hero in his tree. Stick a pin in those ideas for a later story. 

Your hero will thank you for it. And so will your audience.

Act III: Get Him Down

People love a Happy Ever After ending

Build to a climax. Then end it.

This is where you reach a scene (or sequence of scenes) where the tension of the story gets to its most intense point.

So maybe the hero is hanging from one wimpy branch, about to fall from the tree into the mouth of the fire-breathing dragon.

Suddenly, princess Dragonia emerges from the sky on her own pet dragon and whisks him from the tree to her own kingdom where they have a fabulous destination wedding.

So the problem is resolved, hopefully leaving the characters with new insight and understanding.

Once you've done this, your story is over, so take a bow and don't step on your own applause.

You might want to prepare a final line that emphasizes the insight, especially if your story is based on a particular theme. Here are some famous last lines:

  • "It was beauty that killed the beast." (King Kong)
  • "There's no place like home." (The Wizard of Oz)
  • "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (The Great Gatsby)

 See it's that easy. I know. Laugh here. Good storytelling is one of the toughest things there is. But if you keep the rule of three in mind, it helps enormously.

What about you? Do you follow rabbits instead of focusing on the tree when you're telling a story? Can you manage to take the story back to the hero's story in the end

Camilla Randall Mystery #6
(But it can be read as a stand-alone)

Why does everyone think Camilla has the lost Portuguese crown jewels? And what has turned polite little Buckingham into an attack cat? Can Camilla keep her boyfriend Ronzo safe? Or will the murderous Mack Rattlebag find out Ronzo faked his own death?

It's one surprise after another in this warp-speed comedy-mystery where a too-perfect doctor may or may not be in cahoots with a bunch of homicidal New-Agers. Will Camilla and Ronzo, and the tarot cards, solve the mystery?

"I really enjoyed the book from start to finish. Wonderful characters and a ripping story which never lets up right up to that fabulous showdown !"...award-winning Irish humorist Tara Sparling

Ebook is available all the Amazon stores
Also Barnes and NoblePlayster, 24 SymbolsKobo, iTunes, and Scribd

And in paperback at Barnes and Noble and Amazon


  1. Ruth Harris sent me this comment via email, because the Blogger elves don't seem to want to post it. Thanks, Ruth!

    Invaluable post. + Beware digressions. Stories need forward momentum. I've noticed over and over that digressions KILL a story. Know your point (and, if you don't, figure it out.) Then stick to it!

    1. Ruth--But those digressions are so much fun to write, aren't they? We just have to learn to cut them out of the final copy.

  2. Excellent,succinct article! Well done.

  3. Your experience made me nod and groan. Wish you could have materialized with this message at some meetings I've had to sit through. Great wit and images. I never outgrow the need to be reminded of this Rule of Three.

    1. Ann R. You bring up a good point--presentations in meetings are a kind of storytelling. So following these rules would be a great idea for business people making those endless PowerPoint presentations. Or school administrators who love the sound of their own voices. :-)

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