Writing is as easy as 1, 2, 3… sometimes.
In my flashes this past year you will find a lot of threes. In fact, I’ve tagged many of them with 1-2-3-D, which stands for “one-two-three-done!”
I first learned of the “rule of three” in humor, which basically sets you up (1), strings you along (2), and hits you with a surprise (3). It’s applicable for many things, but I found it especially useful in creating flash fiction, and I probably wouldn’t have completed a year of flashes without it.
The first thing I realized about 1-2-3-D stories, is that they’re usually much easier to write than most others. When I found such a topic that inspired me, I knew I’d be writing three short vignettes with some kind of twist at the end, and the twist often fell naturally into place. Most likely I’d get to bed at a decent hour.
The second thing I realized was that there were lots of possibilities. I wrote flashes with three dates, three interviews, three wishes, and three iterations of any number of things.
One character had a blind date with three different kinds of creatures, a wood nymph, a vampire, and a zombie. In another flash, it took three interviews for a couple guys to find the right kind of fellow to be a vampire hunter. And what happens when a genie grants three wishes to a zombie? Or an alien? Or a robot? What happens when a genie grants wishes to a thug that conflict with the wishes a leprechaun granted to a little girl? I wrote at least six stories involving three wishes, all of them very different from each other.
There were two ways I would come up with 1-2-3-D ideas. One way was to be on the lookout for situations that would fit that approach. Got a cash register controlled by Artificial Intelligence? Have it interact with three customers—one-two-three-done! Got three Sirens trying to lure sailors to their deaths in the modern world? Have them attempt it on three different ships—one-two-three-done! Here’s one I haven’t done: Trying to perfect a potion that makes someone irresistible? Try it three times with the same person, or once on three different ones. Already I have a feeling a troll will be involved, and that’s the beauty of these kinds of stories—they get you thinking about the twist right from the beginning.
I also intentionally brainstormed for things that can come in threes. Three wishes, three chances, three strikes, three clues, three viewpoints, three flavors, three trips, three tries, and on some of the more desperate nights, three-cheese macaroni.
There’s no hard and fast rule how to implement these; however, they generally write towards some kind of twist for the third iteration. Take the troll twist for the irresistibility potion mentioned above. To get to that twist, the first iteration needs to provide the set up and establish the stage, which usually makes it the longest of the three. Things usually don’t go right in the first iteration. Perhaps the subject is a cat person, and she runs into a bunch of dog people. The second one might go worse or become problematic in a different way. That section can be long or very short, whatever it takes to provide the pattern. For the third iteration, the tester might try it on himself (Ack! Where’d all these trolls come from?), or he might test it on a troll while forgetting to put on his immunity hat. (What beautiful trails of snot you have!)
Yeah—what do you want from five minutes of thought? The imaginative mind will see many possibilities here.
Occasionally I came across happy accidents where the first iteration generated its own story without the need for two more iterations. Usually that meant its substance had greater meaning than intended. “Day 126: Mr. Travio’s Flower Shop” was one of those cases. I started writing it as a slapstick piece with a hitman’s three failed attempts to kill someone. It turned out to be something entirely different. If that happens, embrace it.
In spite of the rich lode 1-2-3-D has to offer, it only went so far for me. Eventually story ideas of that kind became harder to come by, at least ones that inspired me. They would also become monotonous if it was all I did. All the stories would start to seem too similar and formulaic. It was a welcome boost to keep my 365-day project going, but not all stories could be 1-2-3-D, and I wouldn’t want them to be.
On the other hand, some of them were gems.
Let’s see… introduced the concept with examples and experience (1), discussed how to use the method (2), and took a new turn by mentioning some limitations and ending with something upbeat (3). One-two-three-done—I’m outta here.