The ‘rule of three’ is as familiar to you and I as fairy tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or genies who grant three wishes, or sayings like ‘good things come in threes’.
It’s a rule we use all the time in everyday life.
But what makes three such a magic number?
And when it comes to fiction, how can we use the rule of three in writing?
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is the rule of three in writing?
- Examples of the rule of three, and what it looks like in practice
- Our tips and tricks for the rule of three as a writing principle
- Frequently asked questions
So, what is the rule of three, and how do you use it to engage readers in your own writing?
What Is The Rule Of Three?
The ‘rule of three’ in writing is based on groups of three items being more memorable, emotionally resonant, and persuasive than simply one or two.
In literature, the scope is broad: from having the word ‘three’ in a novel’s title, to three characters’ points of view (POVs), or even just using a three-act plot structure.
We’ll delve into these later, so stay tuned.
But for now, why is the number three so established when it comes to storytelling?
To answer this question, I dug out my psychology textbooks and went trawling through the scientific research, as the overall consensus online is that three is the smallest grouping for pattern recognition in the human brain.
Frustratingly, there’s not a lot of research to back this statement up.
What I did find was an excellent resource, The Rule of Three (or Four), and Pairs by Professor Dominic Cheetham, who expressed the same frustration and used his paper to explore the rule of three in writing (citing Ursula LeGuin, no less).
Cheetham’s takeaways on the rule of three in literature:
- Repetition is an established memory aid.
- Repetition can be used to signify importance, as in emotional intensity (and therefore significance).
- Repetition is core to persuasion, especially the number three.
- Cheetham posited that three reasons are more convincing than one; this is supported by a two-part study from Shu & Carlson (2014), who found that three claims were the ticket to consumer persuasion.
- Cheetham went on to summarise that ‘the rule of three is not just a rule of three or four things together, but a rule of sequential repetition … in a clear and meaningful order’.
- i.e. there is semantic progression, which can become more complex, or even humorous, once a pair primes us for a third list item.
So, there’s a little background on why the rule of three is used in literature, and in life more generally.
Next, we’ll take a look at some examples.
General Examples Of The Rule Of Three
Our love of triads has led to great case studies on the rule of three in action.
Let’s start with real-world examples.
‘I’m Lovin It’
McDonald’s 2003 slogan has just three words but has lasted for 19 years (the fast-food brand’s previous record was four years).
Did anyone else not know this jingle is a Justin Timberlake song?
‘Just Do It’
Another example of the power of three-word advertising slogans, Nike’s motto was inspired by the last words of a death row prisoner, and that resonance carried.
‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’
The UK government’s slogan from the COVID-19 lockdowns went for shock-factor with its implications.
‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’
The English common law oath is a judicial convention spanning the Western world.
The Fates: The Ancient Greek Moirai or Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) were said to spin the threads of birth, life, death, and ultimately, destiny.
The Holy Trinity: In Christianity, this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (one God in three persons), invoked during the ritual of baptism.
The Three Wise Men who travelled to see the baby Jesus are another example of three figures in the Christian faith.
‘Omne trium perfectum’
‘Everything that comes in threes is perfect’ is a long-standing Latin declaration for the rule of three.
‘Mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru’
‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ is based on the Japanese pictorial maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys.
‘Ready, set, go’: This shorter, more effective version of ‘On your marks, get set, go’ shows the power of brevity (and three words).
‘Blah, blah, blah’: For an even simpler example of a three-word phrase, this triple-single idiom has roots in a similar expression from the 1800s.
Examples Of The Rule Of Three In Writing
We’ve looked at general examples — now it’s time to examine some modern and classic examples of the rule of three in writing and the creative industries.
Fables And Fairy Tales
Circling back to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this British fairy tale has more threes than you can poke three sticks at: three chairs, three bowls of porridge, three beds, and the eponymous three bears (who then go through the same chairs / porridge / beds shtick as Goldilocks, only to discover a pint-sized intruder in their midst).
As you can tell, repetition here is key.
With slightly less repetition, the fable The Three Little Pigsincludes not only the three pigs, but also three houses built from increasingly hardy ingredients which they use to finally outsmart the Big Bad Wolf.
For a Norwegian example, De tre Bukkene Bruse or Three Billy Goats Gruff is another well-known fairy tale that employs three goats, each bigger than the last, to trick a hungry bridge-blocking troll.
The category we’ve all been waiting for!
And for our first example, you can’t go past Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.
Here, the original Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
In terms of the rule of three in fiction writing, this story has the trifecta of repetition for memorability, big feelings, and of course, a dose of ghostly persuasion.
Les Trois Mousquetaires orThe Three Musketeers by French author Alexandre Dumas, which gets points for having the number three in its title, follows d’Artagnan and his three swashbuckling heroes as they duel their way through Paris and London — for honour, naturally.
A less obvious example of the rule of three at work is by another Frenchman Jules Verne in his Around the World in Eighty Days.
After travelling to India, Phineas Fogg’s group is a party of three; and when he returns to London, he’s hit with three final ordeals.
The clincher? Fogg wins the book’s titular bet with three minutes to go.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, three witches (‘wayward sisters’) visit the Scottish General Macbeth with the prophecy that he will become king.
As we know, this leads Macbeth down his dark, ambitious path, with tragic consequences.
Unlike Dickens’ ghosts, the three witches spell trouble and temptation for Macbeth, their fateful words finally guiding his (stabbing) hand.
A scarily meta example is one by the master of murder mystery tales herself, Agatha Christie, aptly called Rule of Three.
This triple bill of one-act plays includes Afternoon at the Seaside, The Rats and The Patient.
Not to make this about Shakespeare again, but if we’re talking plays, an oft-quoted line is his ‘Friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ from another well-known tragedy, Julius Caesar.
Arguably the world’s most famous trilogy, the creator of the Star Wars films,George Lucas upped the ante by planning prequel and sequel trilogies for a total of nine films in the space opera.
This opened up the three-act structure to a new, epic scale of storytelling — not to mention intellectual property.
The romantic comedy When Harry Met Sallyis a cult 80s film with a flair for the rule of three.
The pair meet three times before becoming friends, and after the final New Year’s Eve party, where — ***SPOILER ALERT*** — Harry declares his love for Sally and they kiss, they get married three months later.
Credit to Reddit for reminding me that each key character in Signs has an identifying trait or issue that rears its head three times before the end.
The rule of three or ‘threefold law’ in modern-day witchcraft was front and centre in Charmed, with three key characters (even when Shannon Doherty exited the show in season three): the three Halliwell sisters, who used their magical ‘power of three’ to fight supernatural baddies.
I’m including Schitt’s Creek in this list because: a.) it’s brilliant; b.) Moira Rose’s iconic ‘Sunrise Bay’ triple-slap is funnier than the Three Stooges’; and c.) there is even an episode called ‘The Throuple’, where David, Stevie, and Jake take their accidental dating triangle to its comical conclusion.
For anyone who watched The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s season one finale, the three Elven rings are another recent example.
How To Use The Rule Of Three
So, now we know why three is such a magic number: because it’s effective.
But how do we use the rule of three in writing?
Here are three examples of how to use the rule of three:
The simplest way to utilise the rule of three is with a three-act structure, which is a fancy way of saying your story should have a beginning to set things up, a middle for the confrontation of your central conflict, and an end where things are resolved.
If you want to get technical, the three acts are as follows:
- The first act begins with exposition (setting the scene), an inciting incident for the protagonist, and a turning point into act two.
- Next comes the rising action, which leads into the story’s midpoint, as well as a turning point into act three; this is typically where the protagonist fails.
- Finally, the last act follows with a pre-climax to build tension, before the actual climax, then denouement.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has a compelling three-act structure: Katniss volunteers as tribute for the Hunger Games; the Games start; and Katniss wins and goes home (albeit to more potential danger).
A great way to weave complexity is to include three characters, who move through your acts together but with differing points of view.
Which leads us to…
Three Point-Of-View Characters
Creating three characters who all experience the plot of your story in different ways, with differing opinions or agendas, can make for an exciting read. This is especially effective if each character gets a point of view (POV); adding a third character adds some nuance to a dual narrative.
This was done incredibly well in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which follows the POVs of protagonist Zelie, and siblings Amari and Inan.
Outside of the book’s fresh concept and stellar execution, what makes this interesting is that one of the POV characters is ***SPOILER ALERT*** gravely injured in the finale.
Want even more complexity? Simply add a love triangle (and therefore conflict) between your three point-of-view characters.
Finally, for the craft-lovers in our midst, there are also many ways to style your prose to incorporate the rule of three in writing.
Stylistic patterns like a tricolon, hendiatris, or even something as simple as alliteration can be beneficial for your word choice.
- Tricolon: This is when three words of a similar length or form are used as a means of emphasis or inspiration, frequently in political speeches.
- Here’s an example from Barack Obama: ‘Our generation’s task is to make these words, these rights, these values — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — real’.
- Hendiatris: Taking the tricolon a step further, hendiatris uses three words to communicate a core idea, again in speechwriting or marketing.
- One of the biggest quotes of all time is Julius Caesar’s ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ or ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ in Latin, after triumphing over Pontius.
- Alliteration: This is when words beginning with the same letter (or sound) are used in quick succession for aesthetic effect. This often appears in lists or when three adjectives are used.
- ‘While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping’ from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven nails it.
Don’t overdo it.
Literary devices like these can easily err into the dreaded flowery or purple prose if you’re not careful, so use them wisely.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Rule Of Three In Persuasive Writing?
The rule of three in persuasive writing goes back to ancient times with Rhetoric by Aristotle, a three-book treatise on persuasion.
According to the Greek philosopher, the ability to persuade relies on three factors in rhetoric: ethos, the speaker’s character and credibility; pathos, the listener’s emotional state; and logos, the actual argument when proving something is true.
What Does The Rule Of Three Do To The Reader?
The rule of three in writing is a successful literary technique because it makes stories memorable, emotionally impactful, and persuasive for readers.
Grouping things in threes leverages the power of repetition to aid memory; denote emotional intensity or importance; and ease persuasion (research by Shu & Carlson (2014) found that three positive claims is the most effective for persuasion).
Where Does The Rule Of Three Come From?
The earliest known example of the rule of three in writing is Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
The ancient Greek philosopher argued not only for three means of persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logos — but also for three genres of public speech, with such speeches involving a speaker, a topic, and a listener (sensing a pattern?).
The best part — Rhetoric was a three-book discourse.
Writing Engaging, Compelling, Unforgettable Stories
As you’ve learnt throughout this article, the rule of three isn’t just a rule of thumb — it’s a writing principle that can make your stories more memorable, emotionally resonant, and persuasive.
Give the rule of three a try and let us know how it helped you in your own writing!
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