In my previous installment, I introduced you to writing by design and how you can use techniques from the visual arts to inform your writing. In particular, we looked at the concept of space and how the finite nature of it can affect your writing.
Today we turn our attention to the design elements that help us navigate space—pattern and repetition. In design, patterns help achieve visual harmony and repetition establishes what the patterns are in the first place. But there is a more subtle element at play, and this has to do with the psychology of expectation.
Tension and Expectation
There is a whole body of psychological research that examines what happens physiologically, cognitively, and emotionally when people expect one thing and the outcome turns out to be different. A lot of this research centers around music and the tension that occurs when we expect the tune to go one way and it instead goes in a different direction.
In design terms, when we talk about tension it usually means that something in the design is off-balance or out of whack. For example, when two objects almost overlap (but don’t) or when a layout is almost centered (but not quite), it creates visual tension. This tension occurs because visually we expect the objects to overlap and the layout to be centered, so when it’s just a little bit off, the design overturns those expectations.
This ties to what psychology researchers refer to as the tension-expectation theory. This is the idea that when we have certain expectations and those expectations are not met (or are broken), we experience tension. Musicians and designers have been talking about tension and balance for decades, but more recent research has shown similar findings in other contexts, like in storytelling and literature.
It makes total sense that this tension-expectation theory would also apply to writing. Think about it: when we craft a story, we establish a level of trust with readers and set the “ground rules” for how the narrative will play out. A little bit of tension—unexpected surprises and plot twists—hooks readers and helps keep them turning pages.
But shattering that trust altogether could backfire. This is why we usually try to avoid drastic changes, like switching protagonists or using a totally new point-of-view, once we’re far into the story. Of course, we can always “break the rules” for effect, but as writers we need to remember that when we set certain expectations, breaking them will create tension for our readers.
Rule of Three
One of the best tools that allows us to play with this idea of tension and expectation is the rule of three. The rule of three is a sequence containing three similar elements. These can be characters, objects, even events in the story. The key is that the first two elements in the sequence set up a pattern, an expectation for what the third element will be, but the third element breaks that pattern.
The classic rule of three example, of course, is in the fable of the three little pigs. In this case, the whole story is one gigantic rule of three. All three pigs build houses, but they each use different materials: straw, sticks, and bricks. When the wolf comes, he blows down the first two houses easily, but the house of bricks stands firm.
Another great example of the rule of is the movie The Wizard of Oz. This time the rule of three plays out in the new friends Dorothy meets on the road to Oz: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion. The first two are similar in that they’re humanoid but are not actually living creatures. We know this because when they cross the poppy field, Scarecrow and Tin Man are unaffected by the Wicked Witch’s sleeping spell. Lion, on the other hand, is a living creature and we get the sense that he is a little bit different from the other two. After all, he gets his very own extra song about being king of the jungle that he sings when they’re waiting for an audience with the Wizard.
The reason the rule three works is twofold. First, it’s concise. Three is the smallest number possible where you can both establish and break a pattern in one fell swoop. But there’s another wrinkle to this rule: it’s ingrained in our collective consciousness. We almost expect the third element of a sequence to be a twist on the first two.
Of course, the minute your audience comes to expect a twist or surprise, it stops being surprising. As writers we constantly have to walk that fine line between stretching our readers’ expectations without completely shattering their trust. As you look at your own writing, ask yourself: What patterns am I creating? Some patterns are necessary because they give your story structure and stability. Other patterns might pigeon-hole your story and you may need to shake them up.
If that’s the case… take a note from Taylor Swift and “shake shake shake.”
So far in this series, we’ve covered two design elements: space and pattern. In upcoming posts, I’ll dive into two other aspects of writing by design: light and color theory. Stay tuned because there are so many more juicy techniques we can learn from design and apply to our writing.
Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the forthcoming book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2016). Join the word nerd community at DIYMFA.com/join.
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Yes, the rule of three comes into play almost daily in our lives if you think about it. It’s used in music and in architecture. Great article thanks
Barbara Strickland says
really good reading
Erika Hayes says
As a former concept designer in the paper arts industry, this article speaks to me on so many levels. I have spent hours and hours studying and defining and working these design principles. When writing I have found myself thinking – that reminds me of…. (insert design principle here). I love that you have brought these ideas together so nicely. Pretty sure Gabriela is one of my favorite people… 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Terrific advice. Patterns and repetition can also power things up at the sentence level using rhetorical devices like Anadiplosis, Anaphora, and even things like Assonance or Parallelism. It is amazing how effective description can become by using these techniques deliberately. Thanks, Gabriela!
Victoria Marie Lees says
Thank you for the clear examples and explanations. It truly helps a writer to see it.
I have three movements in my YA adventure stories as well. I never thought of them as any pattern, though. The three movements are attempts at increasing the danger and/or the protagonist trying to get the antagonist in the story to listen or work together. I don’t see a pattern per se as these three movements are different in each story.
I’ve shared your post online. Thanks again for the insight.
Kristin Stanley says
Great article. One of my pet peeves is when the POV i switched too late in a story. It always jars me. This was a really interesting comparison of threes. Thanks for the thoughtful article.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I know the main corollary here is about design, but I love the reference you made to music, and how people react when they’re expecting something and it turns out to be different. That’s so true and it’s something I’ve never thought of. So interesting!