The Rule of Three in Discworld

Perhaps you have heard of the ‘Rule of Three’ in comedy writing. For those that haven’t, I point you to a really down-and-dirty quick definition/explantion by John Kinde:

“The first two items in the triplet set the pattern (the “straight” line) and the third item breaks the pattern (the curve/the twist/the derailment). Breaking the pattern heightens the tension and creates the surprise, usually resulting in laughter.”

He’s got a more detailed explanation here.

But I’ve found that it’s always good to have masterful examples – all the better to illustrate. And who could be better or teach more about the rule of three than Terry Pratchett? His books are riddled with countless examples.

Example 1:
In Going Postal, Pratchett opens with a “The Nine-Thousand-Year Prologue.” He describes ships and wreckage floating on rivers beneath the ocean’s surface – which is quite whimsical to begin with.

Then you come across this line: “Some stricken ships have rigging; some even have sails. Many still have crew, tangled in the rigging or lashed to the wheel.”

(Yes, the ‘ew’ factor makes it funny too.)

But you have set-up: “Some stricken ships have rigging;”
You have the continuing line : “some even have sails
You have the derailment: “Many still have crew, tangled in the rigging or lashed to the wheel.”

That’s on the second page.

Example 2:
Also in Going Postal:
The scene – Moist is about to be hanged in front of a large crowd. Pratchett tells us: “There was a stir when they climbed up into the chilly morning air, followed by a few boos and even some applause.”

Set-up: “People were strange like that.”
The continuing line: “Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief.”
The derailment: “Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.”

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to write your own funny ‘triplet.’ You can have a second or two to set your stage, but after that we’ve gotta be able to see the set up, the continuing line, and then surprise us with your derailment.

Fun With Lists…or Not Really…or Reading Like a Writer

Wodehouse, I don’t think anyone will disagree, is a clever writer. There’s a dryish wit that feeds his prose. British, yes? Yes.

When Wodehouse describes a regular situation (man falls off bike) he conveys all the normal information like:

1. If you’re not careful, you can fall off your bike.

2. Falling off the bike will hurt.

3. A reader has empathy for the guy falling off the bike.

I’m a boring writer comparitively (See above, I made a list. So exciting.), so let’s look at Wodehouse. Here’s the passage from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie Wooster witnesses Officer Oates’s bicycle accident:

The constable, I say, was riding without his hands: and but for this the disaster, when it occurred, might not have been so complete. I was a bit of a cyclist myself in my youth — I think I have mentioned that I once won a choir boys’ handicap at some village sports — and I can testify that when you are riding without your hands, privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence. The merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie connecting with the ankle bone at such a time, and you swoop into a sudden swerve. And, as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller.”

Interesting bits of how Wodehouse developed the above passage (here’s another list):

1. He lets us fill in the gaps. We don’t actually see the Scottie dog attack the bike, but we know it happens.

2. He overexplains the situation. Wodehouse doesn’t just say “If you ride without your hands on the handlebars you need to concentrate.” No, it’s “privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence.” The situation is not an accident it is a complete disaster: “but for this the disaster…might not have been so complete.”

3. The overexplanation and use of elaborate wording is reversed right at the end with the slang of “smeller.”

Not to take the fun out of reading by overexamining, but taking small chunks of a writer’s work and examining it like this can lead to revelations in your own work. I mean, in this one paragraph we got: leave gaps to fill in, overexplaining, and reversals. I’m sure that if we continued to probe the language of this paragraph we would find still more tidbits.

But that’s not as fun.

Still…the next time you come across something that you really love in a work, you should read it, mentally note it, and come back to it after you’ve read for fun.

Always fun first, then work.

You don’t need to examine the whole thing (who has that kind of time?), just take a paragraph like I did here. You will definitely learn something.

P.S. Official Warning Label: Do not attempt this exercise with Chaucer, Milton, myself, or Shakespeare. Your head will explode. And I’ll just be embarassed.

Humorous Storytellers–I Love ‘Em

Normally, I don’t do funny writing.  I’ve tried to do some funny writing (or, at least, mildly laughable writing) but with mixed results.

But I really, really, really super-enjoy reading it. And, because I’ve tried funny writing, I know how good the people who  write it successfully really are.

I mean, I love a good tear-jerker, or a make-you-thinker. Still. There’s just so much McCarthy, McEwan, and McCullough you can read at a go, ya know? (And I do love them too…no shortage of love here. But!) Every third book or so has to be a funny book for me, or I start to hate reading. I appreciate wonderful language, deep characters, and all of that, but sometimes I’ve just got to laugh.

Wodehouse has become a go-to because he has so much material that I have a lot to read before I run out.

Three other authors that I run to when I need a break from the dramatic, emotionally wrenching stories of the Literati:

Christopher Moore–He does amazing retellings. My favorites are where he riffs on stories that already have a strong central structure that he can build off of and play with. (ie. Lamb and Fool) Or some kind of mythos that he fiddles with like A Dirty Job.

Anthony Bourdain–He’s not just for foodies, people. For those who have seen the quips and stings he lashes out during Top Chef and No Reservations…well, they work just as well in book form for me. Even his non-fiction is hilarious, like Kitchen Confidential.

Gideon deFoe–You may or may not have heard of this British author of The Pirates! series. But he is freakin’ Amazing. The books are short but will have you rolling. The Pirate Captain is one of the best-drawn cliched-but-not characters ever. There’s The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists (Darwin), The Pirates in an Adventure with Communists (Marx), and The Pirates in an Adventure with Ahab (Ahab). 

How’s about you guys? Who makes you laugh?

The Influence and How It, Well, Influences

My writers group, The Underground Writing Project, wrote what we call a ’round’ story. Basically, we each took turns writing a chapter and so on and so on until we reached the end. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In a seemingly unrelated topic: literature classes bring up the question of influence and it  is always brought up in relation to a writer’s work. Who influenced the piece? What traditions influenced the creation? What relationships did the writer have with other writers?

Well, the round story writing was a wonderful experience– and our heaviest influence was P.G. Wodehouse (with some Oscar Wilde in there for good measure). The resulting book (yes, we actually finished it) is what I like to think of as What Happens When Americans Get Hold Of British Parlor Comedy. There are polo matches and guillotines and love hexagons. We outright borrowed Wodehouse’s voice — or tried to. I mean, he is Wodehouse and we’re just us, right?

That experience is the first time in my writing practice that I actively thought about another writer’s influence on my work.  It’s the only time I pondered the way a voice should specifically sound on the page. (And interestingly enough, it’s also the only time I’ve been called out on a critique regarding voice: apparently I used ‘kind of’ instead of ‘sort of’ in one spot. Who knew, right?)

Now that I’m working on a new writing project, the idea of influence has popped into my head again. I know a certain writer influences the structure of the new piece, another influences the subject matter, and another influences the voice when I feel myself dragging. And I’m not going to tell you these writers’ names because they’re all genius, award winning writers and I’m not about to present the idea that what I’m working on matches up. At all. Forgive me.

The cool thing about the situation is that I feel myself stretching and trying things that I wouldn’t have without these other writers. The structure is a little funky. The subject matter is close to my heart. The voice is, oddly enough, more authentically me too, I think; more inspired than influenced maybe. I’m hoping that it winds up like the UGWP round story: the influence is present but it’s all original. I’m pretty excited.

Now, I really really really want to know from you guys whether you’ve actively let another writer influence your work? How did the experience go for you? What’d you learn?