Revising Fiction? Remember The Rule Of Three

I’ve received several questions about revising fiction from authors who are readying last November’s NaNoWriMo novels for publishing.

An author reported that his beta readers said that they were “confused” about the plot. This can mean that you’ve lost the plot (pun intended.)

You may have:

  • An unclear story question; or
  • You may need to look at cause and effect. Make sure that you have sufficient scenes to set up major turning points in the plot. If your villain blows up the train carrying your hero at the climax, you’ll need to set up that situation earlier, as well as the hero’s miraculous escape.

The other authors were confused about how to start revising and editing a novel.

Your macro (overall/ big picture) revision comes first. Think of this as a structural revision.

Revising fiction: start with macro revision

Always start with the big picture: macro revision. You’re looking at the structure of the novel: does the story make sense? Do the characters behave logically?

Everything has to be on the page.

Authors need editors and beta readers because while something may be clear to us, it’s often not clear to someone else.

Here’s a revision/ editing strategy that’s easy to remember:

  1. Start with the story question. Write it down. If you’re revising a mystery, the story question is “whodunnit?” A thriller’s story question is: “why/ how did they do it?” And of course, a romance’s story question is: will the romantic couple get together?
  2. Read through your manuscript, to see what you have, what you need to discard, and what’s missing. Keep the story question in mind: every scene which doesn’t relate to the story question needs to go;
  3. Next, decide which scenes you need to add. Remember cause and effect. Events happen for a reason, always, and they trigger other events;
  4. A final assessment: do you have all the elements which make a page-turner?

Big tip: outline your novel during the revision phase. This makes structural revision (deleting, adding and moving scenes) easier.

Structural revision: the Rule of Three can help

When your story needs something, but you aren’t certain what, consider the Rule of Three.

Three is a mystical number which occurs over and over in the world’s major religions, in mythology, and even in fairy tales: three wishes, for example. If you have a superstitious bent, you’ve heard that bad (or good) things come in threes.

Three implies completion. Your readers are subtly satisfied with three of anything, so you can use that to your advantage.

You can use the power of three when you’re:

  • Planning novels and short stories;
  • Creating satisfying characters, and plotting;
  • During revision—especially structural revision.

Revision, story structure and The Rule of Three

Many novels and movies have a three-act structure: Acts 1, 2 and 3.


  • Act 1 is the setup, which is completed at the 25% to 30% point of your novel;
  • Act 2 is the longest part of your novel. A midpoint plot twist occurs at the 50% point. Act 2 ends with a disaster/ dark moment at 80%;
  • Act 3 is the shortest. It begins at approximately the 80% point of the novel and leads to the climax at the 95% point. Act 3 often begins with a dark “all is lost moment.” After the dark moment, the hero pulls himself together and gains renewed energy.

When you’re revising fiction, do an initial slash and burn to remove unneeded scenes. Next, list/ outline the remaining scenes and divide your story into three acts.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to see where you need additional scenes. Vital: remember your plot twist scenes at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; they’re essential. Some authors call these scenes “milestone” scenes or story beats.

Once you’ve completed your structural revision, think about your characters. You’ll need to add scenes; use them to grow your characters.

Make your characters more engaging with THREE character traits

Characters who are all good, or all bad, are boring and unrealistic.

When planning characters, aim to give each character two good traits, and one bad.

Your thriller’s main character may be attractive and courageous, but he’s also short-tempered. Your dastardly villain on the other hand, while flamboyant and scary, is also courteous. Aim to reveal these traits in Act 1: use the Rule of Three when introducing characters to readers for the first time. Some writers like to introduce major characters by presenting five pieces of description and action, but whatever floats your boat. I like three pieces. 🙂

A useful tip for revising fiction: whenever you’re stuck, use “three”

You can use the Rule of Three in many ways. For example, a few months back I was ghostwriting a novel for a client and it wasn’t coming together.

Finally, I remembered “three” and dropped in another character to stir things up. It took six extra scenes, but that novel was satisfying to write, and to read, according to the beta readers.

Have fun with your novel’s revision. Remember the Rule of Three; it will help.

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