second, and finally hits the magic on the third, when he tries it on Cinderella.
Basic fairy tale stuff, right?
When applied to novel-writing, the Rule of Three allows the characters to have two character-building attempts at something in order to crank up the tension before the third attempt. Complications arise and the story is spun out along an extended road which leads ultimately to the climax, usually in that section of the story which scriptwriters refer to as the third act – in itself a version of the Rule of Three.
I have another variation on this Rule of Three. Most writers recognise the important correlation between characters and plot, but often sideline that third vital element in story-telling: setting. In my mind this is also a Rule of Three. Not a consecutive 1, 2, 3, but three points of equal importance. A sort of magic triangle, if you like.
Good fiction writing has to be a triangulation between unique characters, a particular plot, and a specific setting. If any one of these three is taken away and replaced with something else, the story cannot be the same, because its very existence depends on the mix between only those people, that specific place and a plot unique to them. The story couldn’t happen anywhere else, or to any other people, or unfold in any other way, because it is the relationship between those three that makes a story what it is.
You’ve probably realised since my last blog that I have a bit of a thing about art forgeries. I even wrote a book about it: Benicio’s Bequest. But what I want to talk about here is not my book, but my favourite TV series.
The American TV series White Collar is about an art forger who is released on parole in order to work as a consultant to the white collar crime division of the FBI. My niece, herself a fine artist, gave me the first three seasons of this series and it is now my favourite. The writers of the series have conjured plenty of witty repartee between Neal (the forger) and Peter (his FBI boss), and of course it helps that the actor playing Neal is extremely pleasant on the eyes, but is the gorgeous Neal Caffrey the only reason I like to
watch? No, there’s more to it than that.
The main character may be a forger, but there’s nothing fake about his hatred of guns and violence. His crime is as clean as such an activity can be, and the action comes not from the usual blood and guts that is the standard fare with most television, but from the convoluted storyline as it swings between cases that both Neal and Peter work at solving, and Neal’s rather more underhand activities with his friend Mozzie. Neal’s fast painting skills and ability to copy with the right materials have saved the day more times than even Peter realises.
When I first tried to analyse what made me enjoy the series so much, several things came to the fore. First, you need great characters that you feel an affinity with, characters that you root for. Even when Neal and Peter are working against each other, I still want both of them to win. And then there’s the quirky Mozzie who provides solutions and problems in equal quantities, sometimes working against Neal, and sometimes colluding (against his will) with Peter. In relationships, never underestimate the importance of the triangle. It doesn’t have to be a love triangle, and divided loyalties can make for great conflict in any plot.
Second, the overall plot and premise of the series. Perhaps it’s just me, but I am fascinated by the lengths to which someone will go in order to be thought one of the great masters, albeit not publicly. The artistry and dedication required for forgery is no easy task. How gratifying it must be to stand in the background and hear the critics heap praise on a work that only you know is yours and not the work of Rembrandt or Picasso. And we, the audience, get to vicariously share this feeling with Neal the perfectionist. He’s a great artist who just happens to be on the wrong side of the law.
Third, the setting: New York in all its glory. The good and the bad: Central Park, Chinatown, the overhead cable car, millionaire apartments, the world’s most famous department stores, banks and boutiques, yellow taxi-cabs, as well as the occasional sleazy drugstore. Neal’s career started when he arrived in New York and met Mozzie in Central Park.
The more detailed settings include the FBI offices, where the transparent glass walls allow for much casual subterfuge and pretence under the watchful eye of authority – on the part of both good and bad guys – and Peter’s cosy home with his wife provides a haven away from the bustle of his work place.
Perhaps the best setting of all is the magnificent rooftop apartment that Neal’s leases after his stint in prison. It belongs to the widow (another glorious character, by the way) of a deceased criminal who had an eye for beauty. This sky-lighted bachelor pad has its own unique view of the Chrysler building. What a perfect place for Neal to paint and plan his next work of skulduggery with Mozzie!
Not only does the series take full advantage of the local landmarks, but part of what drives Neal is that he knows he wouldn’t be happy living anywhere other than New York, and this causes much of his inner conflict in the third series. It is the Setting which changes that solid straight line between the two points of Characters and Plot, drawing them into a wider shape before fleshing out the sides and substance of a unique triangle.
This magic triangle rings true with any good story. Try it out for yourself and see.