S2 E38. Today in our series of Aha Moments, Zena dives into TIP #6. In essence, the audience needs to see three encounters between characters before they will believe that the relationship has changed or evolved for better or worse. It goes something like this:
Scene 1: We establish the standard. What is their relationship like right now?
Scene 2: Something happens that shakes things up, or causes one or both of the characters to question their presuppositions regarding the other.
Scene 3: Solidifies the change. They end up in a new place, and now they stay there.
The bottomline is that the rule of threes is essential in terms of making the audience believe the change in the relationship. Make sure your characters have at least three encounters with each other if you need to show a radical shift in their connection.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2_E38: The Best Tip Ever on How to Reveal the Evolution of Important Character Relationships in Story
Published May 19, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So we're in a series about aha moments that I personally have had as a writer, both as a screenwriter and as a novelist. And I'm sharing these things with you principles or techniques, or things that I learned about the writers life or personality or psychology, or whatever the case may be along the way that really helped me in my writing career somehow either made me a better writer, or it gave me more fortitude, as a writer, or it helped me to cultivate or form a worldview about writing or some sort of philosophy of writing that has served me well. So I am hoping these ideas will serve you well, as well.
PRESENTATION: All right, today, I'm giving Tip #6, this is a tip, this is one of those insider things that it can really save you a lot of time if you know this. And what it is, is that the audience needs at least three encounters between two characters before they will believe the emotional development of their relationship.
Now, this is most commonly seen in romance or romantic comedy. We simply expect in a romantic subplot, even that there should be at least three encounters between the characters before we're going to believe that they really are in love.
Now, there are exceptions to this. For example, August Rush, where the two characters meet one night and boom, they are madly in love. But it's an exception to it. In fact, it's an exception that the entire story hinges on. So it's the important part of that story. It's the music that connects them in a way that is bigger, supernatural, almost bigger than most people. It's uncommon. And that's the point of it, their connection on that first encounter is life changing. They are truly each other's soulmate. They create a little human being as a result, and the rest of the story is about them finding their way back to each other, all three of them through this supernatural phenomenon of music. So that is the point. So even though it's an exception, it's an exception for a reason. So it doesn't so much defy the rule as, in its own way, it emphasizes how rare it is for people to be in love if there's only one encounter. But they're the exception to the rule.
Okay. There's other examples of course,.Romeo and Juliet. Okay, so in Romeo and Juliet, we're expected to believe that they are truly in love. However, in Romeo and Juliet, even though they meet at first and it's love at first sight, they actually do end up having more encounters before they take their own lives at the end, so that by the time they do that, we fully are invested and believe in their love. We believe they truly love each other. So maybe at first it is just infatuation and crushes. But by the time we get to the meat of the story, they have had more than three encounters with each other. And so we absolutely believe it.
Another potential exception would be Sleepless in Seattle. I mean, those characters don't actually even meet until the very final scene of the film when they walk away hand in hand. And yet, one could argue that they actually do have multiple interactions. Certainly Meg Ryan's character, because she's stalking him and she's listening to the radio show. So even though there is a conduit in the form of the son, who ends up sort of moderating or being the thing that helps that relationship advance because of the interactions that Meg Ryan has with the son through the radio show, even that would count because she's learning something about the son. And then, of course, there's the letter. Even the letter that Jonah reads to his dad that Meg Ryan wrote, that is an encounter that Tom Hanks is having with Meg Ryan, even though he denies it, right? And even though he's like, "This is stupid. Do you know where she is? She's here, we're here. Yeah, we're too far apart."
But notice, they had to have the scene where she gets off the plane and he notices her. He notices her to the point that he kind of chases her down. So we're being prepped for this special connection that they have at the end. And of course, she's watching from the beach when she goes and visits. She doesn't, you know, interact with him directly, but she's watching.
So even though that would be an exception, it really isn't, because they still have these encounters. So certainly this has to happen anytime you have a romance in a story, whether it be a romantic subplot, or whether it be a romantic comedy or a romance in general, where the whole plot itself is the relationship. You have to have at least three encounters before the audience will truly believe that they're in love. Unless you have an exception, in which case, you fully have to justify that exception like what happens in August Rush.
Okay, well, the thing is, this is also a good rule of thumb whenever you need to show the evolution of a character relationship even if it's not romantic. It's the rule of threes in a lot of ways. It's a powerful thing, the rule of threes, because we get to see small, incremental changes. So, let's say you have rivals who end up becoming friends, which we see a lot in story. Well, think about it in rules of threes.
SCENE #1: You set it up. So in the very first scene, of course, we just establish the rivalry. They hate each other, right? We see their relationship as it is -- hostile, hate-filled rivals. They don't like each other at all. We see how it unfolds as a result of their rivalry. They can't stand each other, right? So at the very beginning of Zoolander, we see that happen with Hansel and Zoolander at the award show and how they are rivals, and there's some jealousy and bitterness and all of those things.
SCENE #2: Then, the next scene progresses the relationship somehow. Now, in this case, in Zoolander, they have the dance-off, it's the big dance-off scene. So it actually progresses the relationship even further into a rivalry, but it heightens it and we really get to see these two go, you know, mano a mano, if you will, and Zoolander loses, which is important because he's being humbled. He's the king of modeling. And yet he's being humbled and reduced to something else, which helps him in his own particular journey. But then, because the very last place they would look for him is Hansel's (because everybody knows they hate each other), he ends up going to Hansel's.
SCENE #3: And that's the third scene, where now Hansel has a chance to say, "Yeah, you can hang here, but I mean, why are you so messed up towards me?" "Well, I'm messed up towards you, because you're messed up towards me." "Well, yeah, because you're Derek Zoolander! You're like a king." Right? He flatters him. And he tells him how much, "I watched you. I looked up to you, your work in the men's model catalogue of whatever year it was was some of the best I've ever seen." And now Derek Zoolander is like, "Oh, he could be a friend. He doesn't have to be a foe." And now all of a sudden, we believe that they're BFFs. Right? We believe that they're BFFs. But it's the third encounter that allows that even though in this case, it's a comedy. And so it's kind of absurd that it turns around that quickly.
Nevertheless, the point is, when you have the evolution of a character relationship, you need those three scenes. You have scene one, which establishes wherever they're at; scene two moves it in one direction or another, either they get closer, or they get further apart, whatever the case may be. Okay, so we see their relationship as it is -- hostile, hate-filled, et cetera. That's the standard, we set the standard. Then we see another scene where they start from the same place, but they end up in a new place emotionally. Something happens during that scene that causes movement. Maybe the main character goes from hate to fear, or maybe from hate to a smidge of understanding. Something that challenges his assumptions and preconceived notions, something that makes him doubt that he's seeing everything clearly. Or maybe he has pity for the first time or he hesitates in some way. More ambivalence towards the other character. Then the third scene is the turning point where perhaps they aren't on the opposite ends of the spectrum. After all, maybe they're not complete enemies, maybe they can work together, something happens that allows true connection or empathy or understanding to take place if that's the evolution of that relationship. Scene three culminates it. Now it takes on new shape. By scene three, we will allow it to take on new shape and we'll believe it.
So, if it's two friends drifting apart, then you have scene one where we establish this great friendship. They're buddies, they love each other, but then, you know, scene two something happens. And it's a conflict. It's like, "Dude, what's going on?" "I don't know," and they fight. But by scene three, then, now we'll believe that the relationship is severed completely because of whatever happens in that scene. But we'll need at least three interactions to buy it.
CONCLUSION: So what you want to do is help us to understand a believable arc for the relationship. And remember, it is the rule of threes. But it's also a three act structure, scene 1, 2 and 3, and that helps carry the relationship into a new phase.
Now, scene three is the scene that solidifies the transformation. Any scenes after that, by scene four, they're strong in that new place.
Really, that's got to be where they are. They're no longer enemies by scene four or they're really enemies by scene four, but it's scene three that solidifies the transformation. Maybe they're still rivals, but there's mutual respect now. They've come to a new place of understanding and appreciation. Or maybe two friends that used to adore each other are absolutely now enemies.
But it takes three encounters for us to believe that, so regardless of the type of relationship, we won't believe the strong ties of two characters in any dimension, or in any direction, until after at least three encounters that reveal the evolution of that relationship.
CALL TO ACTION: I hope that this has been helpful to you. For more tips like this, check out The Storyteller's Mission website, www.thestorytellersmission.com. And of course, if you are a screenwriter, check out our class, Formatting as an Art Form. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the best classes out there that exists on how to write screenplays. I highly recommend it. But of course, I'm a little biased. Even so, check it out if you can.
OUTRO: Alright, in the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.