Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rule of Three in Writing

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
beginning, middle and end is basic to a good story. Plus, several books and films have memorable titles using three such as, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The Three Musketeers.”

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, “Libert√©, egalit√©, fraternit√©.”

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?


  1. I wasn't aware that I used the rule of three, but now that you brought it to our attention, I've found that I did. My protagonist undergoes three major events with the supernatural, she conducts three interviews during her investigation, and there are three suspects that she tries to investigate--and she has two friends making them a threesome. Guess I've used the rule whether I knew it or not. Maybe I'm more of a pantser than I realized. Thanks, Kara!

  2. Because writers before us have used the rule of three, readers are familiar with the pattern. Therefore, if I want to make the reader comfortable, I use the form A, B, and then C. However, when I want to startle the reader or provide a different emphasis, I can add a fourth or fifth element to mix things up.

    I don’t buy rules such as introduce a crime in the first three chapters to hook the reader. The inciting incident in the first scene should do the hooking sufficiently well so the crime can wait. And things like planting exactly three clues and mentioning each exactly three times drive a pantser like me crazy. The more the merrier, I say. Or in a pure suspense, one approach may be sufficient as the open question is whether and how the hero will avoid the nastiness set out for him.

    But I wasn’t ever very interested in strictly following rules.

    ~ Jim

  3. I agree with Jim that the rule of three is ingrained in us from reading other writers. It’s a surprise when we realize we’ve been unconsciously using them all along. I discovered that I use it too.

    E.B., your story sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.

  4. EB, I think you should buy a lottery ticket - 333!
    We do have that special "rhythm" of three events or characters ingrained in our children's literature - the three pigs, the three billy goats gruff (can you tell I am a children's librarian). That's why it is fun to break the rule and go off script with our stories!
    Maybe I'll go buy a 333 lottery ticket....though my lucky number is 22.

  5. Jim, I thought you might be a person who enjoys coloring outside the lines on occasion. I like your idea of setting up a pattern then changing it to startle the reader. I think it's good to understand the rules in order to figure out the most effective way to break them.

  6. I tend to use the rule of three in description, I suppose. The old "tall, dark and handsome" but not that generic. As Shari said, it's the perfect rhythm. But, as for plotting, suspects, etc? Nope.

  7. Good point about the rhythm of three events or characters, Shari. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of a cadence.
    I hope you win big whatever numbers you play.

  8. Sarah, I suppose for plotting and suspects etc. the number used depends on what the story requires. I'm curious if an odd number of suspects (or anything) is more interesting to a reader than an even number. Or, maybe all that matters is a good story.

  9. Kara, great post!
    I've always heard that to teach a principle, the instructor should repeat it three times. I had a professor who would stop and repeat a concept three times in a row if he wanted the class to remember it.
    Also, I remember a modified rule of three for answering the essay questions on the bar exam: (1) say who you represent (plaintiff, defendant, judge); (2) say how the problem would be resolved briefly; (2a) [at this point you describe at length the reasons for the resolution and if in writing the description you decide you were wrong, you go back and scratch it out and write the correct resolution]; and (3) conclude by saying, "as w representing x the answer is y because of z."
    I think my lucky number is 4.

  10. I haven't heard this before, but it certainly seems like good advice.

  11. I didn’t know about using the rule of three to teach a principle, Paula. I imagine it would also work to repeat something three times in order to help remember it. Thank you for the good example of its use in answering questions on the bar exam.

    Jacqueline, I didn’t realize that this rule was used in so many different areas. After I wrote this blog I found out that my husband uses the rule of three when giving speeches. He focuses the presentation on only three main takeaway points so, hopefully, the audience will remember.

  12. Ah!..So it is all about 3..well written and hooked me up for reading!...

  13. Kara, I was traveling all day yesterday so I'm a little late with this. Like Sarah, when I taught a unit on folk or fairy tales I showed how often the number three was important. I also taught them all stories needed a beginning, a middle and an end. However, in my own writing, I don't follow the rule rigidly. I don't kill anyone in the first three chapters, I always have more than three suspects, and as for clues? I've never counted them to see how many there are because I sprinkle red herrings throughout, too. As for the number 333, my address for many years was 333 Raymond Street. Did it bring me luck? No more than at any other place I've lived.

  14. Thank you for your comment and visiting Writers Who Kill, Sakib!

    Gloria, I would have loved to have been a student in your class learning about creative writing.