I am a rule follower. So when people say "Remember the rule of three," I cut incidents out of my story. Then they say "Remember aim for 14 spreads." Then I squint my eyes, wrinkle my nose, and say "Aw sassafras*."
*I have been caught saying other things in front of the kids recently, so I am working on using 'sassafras.'
Oh the Rule of Three. Three bears. Three porridges. Three attempts. Three. Three. Three.
And I get it. In a short story. House of sticks, house of straw, house of bricks, wolf in the pot.
But how do I stretch 3 incidents into 14 spreads for a picture book? Even if each incident is a reasonable 2 spreads, 8 spreads remain to be filled with the opening and the resolution. Throw in the "open in the action" and the "two spreads to resolve" rules and clearly picture books are mathematically impossible.
So I studied some picture books. The majority are concept books which don't follow the rule. Then there are traditional story books where I couldn't tease out a three.
First the rules breakers:
In The Monster at the End of This Book (Stone, 1971) Grover makes four attempts to keep kids from turning (telling you not to, tying the pages, nailing the pages, and a brick wall).
In The Nicest Naughtiest Fairy (Ward, 2008) the well-behaved naughty fairy makes 5 attempts to help friends and fails royally all 5 times. Spread 1: Opening, Spreads 2-9: Five Attempts & Fails, Spreads 10-12: Resolution. My brain wants to write books this way, and here is proof it can be done.
I found ONE perfect three in Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (Chodos-Irvine, 2003). Spread 1: Opening, S2-7: 3 Suggestions/3 "no's," S8-14 Resolution. The illustrations allow the resolution to be spread out over such a long stretch. It was a Caldecott Honor book after all.
The Boy who Cried Ninja (Latimer, 2011) offers a double three. ½ spread introduces MC & Problem. S1-3: Show the first 3 problem causers. S4: MC makes a decision. S5-7: Show 3 new problem causers. S8-9: MC takes action. S10-14 Resolution. This is a pleasing use of the rule of three.
The Knuffle Bunny (Willems, 2004) uses a triple three. S1: Intro, S2-3: three places on way to laundromat, S4-6: the problem, S7-9: Trixie's three attempts to tell Dad the problem, S10-11: The lowest low is reached, S12-13: three places on the way back to the Laundromat, S14-15½: Resolution
So what does it all mean?
Three is a good rule. You can use threes in several ways. You don't have to follow the rule.
Sound off - what do you think about the rule of three?