Recently, I was talking with a friend from China about the importance of the number three. She said it’s a lucky number in her culture. We realized that some form of the number three is important in many cultures and religions around the world. For example, Christianity has the Holy Trinity, ancient Romans believed that everything that comes in threes is perfect, and the ideals at the heart of Buddhism are called the Three Jewels.
So, if three is universally significant, is it important in writing? Well, the three act structure of
Further, in stories it’s often the first two attempts that don’t work, while the third is successful. For instance, Goldilocks tried to sleep in two beds but found them uncomfortable. The third was just right.
But is there an actual rule of three for writing? After some searching I found that the answer is yes. There is a rule and it’s old. I’m simplifying, but Aristotle wrote in his book, Rhetoric, that people can easily remember three things but not more.
Grouping things in threes also provides greater impact. For instance, three-worded slogans like “Go, Fight, Win” or Nike’s “Just Do It” stick with us. And who can forget the French Revolution’s memorable slogan, “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
A series of three establishes a progression where tension is created, added upon, and then released. In Charles Dickens classic tale, A Christmas Carol, he uses three spirits—the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future—to teach Ebenezer Scrooge a lesson. The third ghost is the most frightening, yet after Scrooge confronts the last ghost, he changes for the better and the tension is released.
Use of a “comic triple” is a classic joke telling technique. Comedians use two similar elements to establish an expected pattern then the third is a clever twist to hopefully make the audience laugh. Here is an example from The Dick Van Dyke Show: “Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?”
When writing dialogue some authors caution to write no more than three continuously “spoken” sentences by the same character otherwise it’s a speech instead of dialogue. Also, write no more than three exchanges between two characters. Add action or narration to break it up and keep the reader’s attention. Consider adding a third character to a two-person scene to make the dialogue more complex.
For similar reasons they recommend limiting back story or flashbacks to three or fewer sentences then return to the real time scene. If there are more than three sentences, the reader may become immersed in the back story and forget about the primary story.
There are even suggested uses for the rule of three when writing mysteries:
1. Introduce a crime within the first three chapters of your novel in order to hook the reader.
2. Plant three clues and mention each three times in order to give a reader fair warning that it’s important.
3. Provide three possible solutions to a crime.
Do you use the rule of three in your writing?
Do you have a lucky number? Did you use it to play the recent Mega Millions Jackpot?