May 2, 2013

Trinitarian Writing

Some while ago, during her Friday Tidbits series, Anne Elisabeth Stengl wrote a post on the Rule of Three.  In it she talked about the frequency with which we see patterns of three cropping up in all forms of art: the triangle format in painting, drawing the eye in toward the main subject; the famous threes of literature, from three disturbing blind mice to Goldilocks and the three dinosaurs bears; and the three-pronged repetition in a story's theme.  She made the point that if something is mentioned only once in a story, it will seem of little importance; if it is mentioned only twice, it will seem a coincidence, a mistake on the part of the writer; but if it is mentioned three times, it becomes fixed in the reader's mind as a theme.

Since this is an aspect of writing I find particularly intriguing, her last point caught me most and has stayed with me longest.  Subconsciously, it was something I had recognized before; it appears in my own writing, both in themes and in foreshadowing.  And, upon consideration, it makes sense.  I have done several posts already on Sayers' The Mind of the Maker and won't bore you with yet another, but though I am not generally one for numerology or anything of that sort, it has occurred to me more and more since reading that book how often cycles of three do come into our writing.  Perhaps a very bold parallel cannot be drawn, but I do think there is a sense in which writing is trinitarian - little surprise, since we are made in the image of God. 

Anne Elisabeth's post and, more recently still, a reading of David Copperfield brought these thoughts out with greater clarity - for Dickens, consciously or not, was a master at conveying themes.  I can think of two instances in the book that followed the trinitarian cycle, the first exactly, the second with some latitude.  The first is when David tells his aunt how thoroughly he is in love with Dora, and Betsey Trotwood, knowing his foolishness, shakes her head and says, "Blind! blind! blind!" - which, of course, is also a repetition of three.  It springs to David's mind again at the end of that chapter.  It occurs for the third and last time when David, having lost Dora and being a little wiser now, realizes what he forfeited by his foolishness and recalls his aunt's words.

The second instance, I admit, is a little fuzzier.  There is a moment when the reader is given a glimpse of Steerforth asleep, "with his head upon his arm," as he used to lie at school - this is really a second-time occurrence, since it evokes the memory of the school-days.  It is brought home powerfully again after the shipwreck, when David is brought down to the beach and sees his old friend for the last time.

"But, he led me to the shore.  And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children - on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered - among the ruins of the home he had wronged - I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school."

You don't like Steerforth, since he's a cad, and yet the way the scene is evoked and the repetition of that line still manage to break your heart.  And that, I think, is one of the most interesting elements of a theme: if it is right, if it is true to the story and the characters, it gets down to the reader's heart.  It doesn't have to follow any particular rule - it's visceral, as most writing is - but I do find it fascinating how, in it, the pattern of three consistently reoccurs.  And I wonder, too, if it appeals to us so much because of that image of God. 

what do you think?  have you noticed the pattern?


  1. The first thing that popped into my head as I read this was the saying "What I tell you three times is true"—which I encountered for the first time in Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting. It's applied there in dialogue, too, with someone repeating a word three times over. (I believe it comes from Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," which I didn't know till I Googled it!) That's a very interesting point about repetition in a story...I never thought about it in terms of threes, but I think once or twice I've wondered if I'd mentioned something enough times to make the necessary impression on the reader's mind—in other words, so they know it's not just a coincidence.

    1. I've never heard that saying before - which is a bummer, because I could have used it! Until that post by Anne Elisabeth, I hadn't thought of it in terms of three, either, but it did make perfect sense. And it helps, I think, in striking a balance between irritating repetition and writing that, as you said, seems mere coincidence. There is something pleasantly rhythmic about patterns of three, which I find intriguing.

      And on an entirely different note, I may have to get Nine Coaches Waiting.

  2. I've often wondered, like Elisabeth said, on how often and in what way I should flash a light on a theme or point that should make an impression and stick in the reader's mind without shouting it out through a loudspeaker so all but the most careless of readers will have it throttling down their throats... So I think this post really echoed with me, Abigail :). I especially liked the idea of the trinitarian coming through in literature. I guess I don't take too much notice of these points as I read, though I really should start too. I tend to analyze movies more ^.^

    However, thinking on it, I do believe something of the trinitarian reechoing of a theme crept unawares into my short story, A Love that Never Fails though I believe it wasn't really subtly done or anything so clever as Dickens! if you remember at the start of the story, Jane's grandmother tells her, 'my child, love never fails' and then later on in the story (roughly midway) Jane declares to Elizabeth Miller 'if we keep on loving and do not give up, I am sure it will not be in vain'. And of course in the end, Jane remembers her grandmother's words 'love never fails', realizing how truly she spoke. It is a very bad example, and far too obvious (that's the trouble with writing a short story!), but somehow this idea of trinitarian reminded me of it :)).

    1. I don't think it's very enjoyable, or even helpful, to overtly analyze as you read. I know some people do, but it seems to me too much like the heartless process you go through in English classes where you've got to diagram the life out of every sentence. It's just too mechanical. But I do find that the more I read (and write), the more I subconsciously analyze. Which is a lot lazier, but more fun.

      I should think having that kind of overt pattern in a short story would be very helpful in linking it and making it cohere. It's harder to develop a theme in just a few pages, after all, so you almost have to go about it that way. And apparently the judges thought it was good, too!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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