The Basics, in 3’s

In a few weeks I will be teaching a workshop on the basics of creative writing to a group of young people. The workshop is expected to cover story, structure, character, plot and theme–you know, the basics of creative writing.

I will have one hour.

Cramming years of acquired knowledge and experience into a mere 60 minutes is a daunting task, but I did pick up a thing or two in my years of volunteering in schools and hanging around children.

When trying to teach a broad topic, use a number.

People like–and remember–numbers. This is why you see so many articles titled “Six Ways to Make Your Garden Grow,” or “Four Secrets to Conquering Belly Fat.” Notice how those are nice low numbers. If I have to do more than six things to make my garden grow, I’m throwing in the trowel. And four secrets? How many people can keep even one secret? Four is plenty. A person has to be motivated to keep four secrets.

So, not only do I need a number, I need a low number. Luckily, the basics of creative writing has a built-in appropriate number: the number three.

Why three? Why is three so special to creative writing?

Think about it.

How many basic story types are there?  Three: Man versus Himself. Man versus. Man. Man versus Nature. These break down into smaller parts, but every story can fit into one of these broad categories.

How many story lengths are there? Three: Novel, Novella, Short Story.

How many short story types are there? Three: Short, Flash, Micro.

How many acts in the Three Act Structure? Act One is the beginning, when the author needs to set up the story and hook the reader; Act Two is the middle, when the author has to dig in to make the story complex, logical and suspenseful enough to hold the reader’s interest; Act Three is the end, when the author provides a climax and resolution so the reader feels satisfied and entertained.

How many Point of View options are there for a writer to tell a story? Three. First Person, where “I” tells the story; Second Person, where “you” tells the story; and Third Person, where “He/She/It” tells the story.

How many dimensions in a well-drawn character? Three: Physical, which tells us about his outside appearance; Sociological, which tells us about his background and current life situation; Psychological, which tells us what’s happening inside his head and heart.

How many parts of a story? Three: Conflict, Crisis, Resolution.

Looking at stories in terms of three wrangles it into manageable pieces. Basics. If a young writer walks out of my workshop holding up three fingers and muttering, “Conflict, Crisis, Resolution,” I’ll be thrilled.

I only wish I had three hours.

Did I forget anything? If you were taking a course in the basics of creative writing, what three things would you like to know?

Tell me about it.


10 thoughts on “The Basics, in 3’s

  1. All you need is the “Three” song from Schoolhouse Rock as background music. I think it’s “Three is a Magic Number”.


  2. It’s perfect, Ramona! The only other 3 I can think of is 3 types of characters: Protagonist, antagonist and secondary character, which could be love interest, confidant or truly secondary character. I know, I know, characters don’t quite fit neatly into 3 types. But maybe you can fudge it to make it work! The point being you generally need more than simply the main character or even the MC and villian.


  3. Thank you for this, Ramona! I was thinking just yesterday of how to handle NaNoWriMo’s Young Authors program (in the future–I’m not currently involved, but thinking ahead to our retirement community.)


  4. Repitition! In lore and children’s lit everything happens in threes. And many authors now use repetition of words or phrases three times. Eg Kevin Henkes. Three is also a love triangle. Shakespeare seemed to keep it neater with four though!


Leave a Reply to Ramona DeFelice Long Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s