Jamie and the Rule of Three
By Diana Gabaldon
One of my male readers, a book reviewer, recently sent me a message on Twitter, saying that he’d just finished reading Outlander and enjoyed it a lot until the prison chapters. I tweeted back that I’d be kind of worried about him if he’d enjoyed the Wentworth Prison part, to which he said, . . . but why put our hero through such pain and suffering? smile emoticon, adding in the next, I know I’m late to the Outlander party & you’ve probably already addressed this, but that was intense emotional, physical pain.
My first impulse was to reply, Well, _yeah_ . . . But it was a serious question and deserved a real answer, which took some thought.
The simple answer is just that that’s what I saw happening. That’s not really a satisfactory answer for a reader, though. I “see” things happening, because the subconscious part of my mind is digging things out of the compost and shipping them up into my visual cortex. The waybill with the tracking number comes along much later—and only if I look for it.
Let me make a brief distinction here about the components of writing. There’s What Happens, and there’s How You Get It On The Page. “How” is the craft part of writing: How do I convey a sense of action, of tension, of tenderness, of curiosity, of awe? How do I make people turn the page? (An important consideration, if you tend to write books with a lot of pages.) How do I explain?
Now, the craft part—the actual putting of words on the page—that’s pretty conscious; it has to be. You’re making a million (not exaggerating) decisions on every page. Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of day is it? Who’s speaking here? What do they sound like? Does what this person said make sense? That chair over there—should it be a chair? Ought it perhaps to be a low stool? Or a nursing chair? Someone just kicked it—ought it to break when it hits the wall? Did the person who kicked it hurt his foot? What did he say ¬then? The chair/stool made a dent in the wall; shall I mention that? No, it will interfere with the person who’s laughing at him—are they convulsed with mirth? No, too much; are they going pink in the face with the effort not to laugh? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to quote the King of Siam.
But what happens is often not conscious at all. I saw a man, obviously exasperated beyond bearing, kick a stool with great force. What exasperated him? Who is the person laughing at him? Are they doing so derisively, or are they supportive of him but can’t help being amused by his frustration? Those are all “What happened?” sorts of questions and are largely being answered as I write, again by the nonverbal subconscious.
There always is a reason why things happen or are necessary in a story, whether I know what those things are while I’m writing or not. So—returning to my reader’s question—what were the reasons for the terrible things that happened to Jamie in Wentworth Prison?
In part it’s because Outlander is a high-stakes story. Almost everybody understands that you have to have something at stake for a story to be good. And way too many thrillers and sf/f novels assume that nothing less than the Fate of the Known Universe will do, these authors mistaking scale for intensity. No matter what the background may be, a story that focuses on the impact of events on one or two individual lives will be—generally speaking—much more engaging and emotionally intense than one where everyone is just rushing around trying to save a planet or get their hands on the fortunium bomb that could Destroy Everything!
So Outlander is a high-stakes story—on an individual level—throughout. It’s a love story, sure, and it’s all about what people will do for the sake of love. Claire, for instance, chooses to abandon the life she knew (and was about to reclaim postwar), the safety of the twentieth century (and she of all people would value that safety, having come through such a war), and the husband she’d loved. She chooses hardship, danger, and emotional pain, in order to be with Jamie.
But love for these two is always reciprocal. It’s not about one partner making a sacrifice for the other’s sake. Throughout the story, they keep rescuing each other. And the stakes are high. Jamie marries Claire originally in order to save her from Black Jack Randall. Would that be a striking thing to do if Jack Randall was not, in fact, a serious threat? He is a serious threat; we learn that from Jamie’s backstory. The man’s a genuine sadistic psychopath, who has essentially destroyed Jamie’s family and seriously injured him, both physically and emotionally. And here’s Jamie swearing to give Claire everything he has, the protection of his name and his clan—and the protection of his body—in order to save her from this man.
He then does save her, physically and immediately, from Randall, when Randall captures her and assaults her at Fort William—even though by doing so he puts not only himself but everyone with him in serious danger, and does so at some emotional as well as physical cost. “I was tied to that post, tied like an animal, and whipped ’til my blood ran! . . . If I’d not been lucky as the devil this afternoon, that’s the least as would have happened to me. . . . And when ye screamed, I went to you, armed wi’ nothing but an empty gun and my two hands.” The stakes are higher; the threat to Jamie (and Claire) from Captain Randall is increased.
One, two, three. The Rule of Three. It’s one of the important underlying patterns of storytelling: One event can be striking. The next (related) event creates resonance. But the third brings it home—WHAM. (That is, btw, why classic fairy tales always involve three brothers, three sisters, three fairies, etc.—and why the most classic form of joke always starts, “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi . . .” The climax of the story, the punch line of the joke, always comes on the third iteration.) The third encounter with Black Jack Randall is the climax, the point where the stakes are highest. Jamie’s been captured and seriously hurt, Claire’s come to save him, but Randall turns up and takes her captive, threatening her life.
Okay. This has to be a credible threat. Ergo, we have to have seen (and heard about) the real damage Randall has done to Jamie thus far; we have to be in no doubt whatever that he’d do real damage to Claire. We can’t just say, “Oh, he’s such a nasty person, you wouldn’t believe . . .” We have to believe, and therefore appreciate, the enormity of what Jamie is doing when he trades what’s left of his life for Claire’s.
And because we do believe that, we share both Jamie’s despair and Claire’s desperation.
Throughout the book, we’ve seen that love has a real cost. Jamie and Claire have built a relationship through honest struggle, a relationship that’s worth what it’s cost them. This is the final challenge, and Jamie’s willing to pay what will apparently be the ultimate cost.
Why would I throw that away? To have him escape rape and torture (he—and we—know what’s coming) by the skin of his teeth would be to undercut his sacrifice, to make it of little moment. (It would be like someone turning up in Gethsemane and telling Christ, “Hey, buddy, you don’t really have to do this. Come with me, I got a secret way outta here. . . .”)
So love has a cost, and it’s a real one. But they do rescue each other, and Claire saves not only his life but also his soul. (Yes, it is redemption and resurrection, and, yes, there’s Christ imagery all through the story—it was my first book, okay?) His soul wouldn’t have been in danger had he not been really and truly nearly destroyed by his sacrifice.
I.e., had Claire shown up with reinforcements in the nick of time and saved him before he’d been put through such pain and suffering . . . well, then it would have been a nice, heartwarming story in which Hero and Heroine conquer evil and ride off into the sunset together. But it wouldn’t have half the power of a story in which Jamie and Claire truly conquer real evil and thus show what real love is. Real love has real costs—and they’re worth it.
I’ve always said all my books have a shape, and Outlander’s internal geometry consists of three slightly overlapping triangles. The apex of each triangle is one of the three emotional climaxes of the book: 1) when Claire makes her wrenching choice at the stones, 2) when she saves Jamie from Wentworth, and 3) when she saves his soul at the abbey. It would still be a good story if I’d had only One and Two—but, see above, the Rule of Three. A story that goes one, two, three, has a lot more impact than just a one–two punch.