As writers, we want to capture our readers’ attention, rivet them to the page, and leave them clamoring for more. We want to create something that moves people, deepens their understanding, and keeps them thinking about our story long after they’ve devoured the last word.
You may have noticed how I used sets of three in my opening paragraph, and if you didn’t consciously register it, your subconscious mind certainly did. Using the Rule of Three in your writing is one way to meet reader expectations and engage reader interest.
Why You Should Care
Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
I bring this up because I want to make the point that there really are no rules when it comes to fiction writing. But there are time-honored traditions so ingrained in our culture and conscience that it would be foolish to ignore them.
Some of these are the genre conventions and obligatory scenes so critical to providing a pleasing experience for the reader. Others are broader in scope, reaching far across genre boundaries to encompass many aspects of a reader’s life. One of these is the Hero’s Journey. David Safford has written an excellent series of articles exploring this topic, and I encourage you to check them out.
Another of these far-reaching customs is known as The Rule of Three.
What Is the Rule of Three?
You don’t have to be a fan of Schoolhouse Rock to know that three is a magic number. Listen to a persuasive speaker, and you’ll hear him engage the Rule of Three time and again to drive home his points, motivate his audience, and boost their memory of his words. (See how I just did that?)
Things happen in threes. Or at least it seems that way, because the convention is so deeply entrenched in our cultural expectations. You can see reflections of this everywhere. The Holy Trinity. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Truth, justice, and the American way.
We see it all the time in our fiction, too. The three-act structure, beginning, middle, and end. The Three Little Pigs, the Three Amigos, the Three Musketeers. Grouping things in threes not only provides rhythm and balance, but also invokes a powerful subconscious expectation.
The Rule of Three is the art of setting up and fulfilling a three-part pattern. Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can use the Rule of Three in our writing.
Boosting Character Dynamics
When you have two characters, A interacts with B and B interacts with A. Certainly there can be tension, but it’s difficult to sustain in an interesting way.
Add a third character, and you’ve just deepened the dimensions of your plot significantly. Now we’ve got A to B, A to C, B to A, B to C, C to A, and C to B.
This provides plenty of scope for adding and escalating conflict. Introducing a fourth character to the mix can sometimes be too much, making it hard for the reader to keep straight, but three is perfect. Why do you think triangles are so popular in literature?
Let’s take a look at some examples.
1. The Hunger Games
Katniss is torn between two loves, Gale and Peeta. Each of these men brings out something good in her, fulfilling a need. The ongoing tug of war between what she thinks she wants and what she ends up with creates a compelling dynamic that carries the story through three novels.
Like The Hunger Games, the interactions here are primarily between Ilsa and her two lovers. The story centers on themes of desire vs. honor and sacrifice for another’s happiness. Without Laszlo providing a third side of the triangle, Rick and Ilsa’s dramatic conflict would be considerably flatter.
Sam dies, creating a gulf between him and Molly that only Oda Mae can gap. If Sam could just talk to Molly, they wouldn’t need Oda Mae, but the story wouldn’t have all the lovely dimension and conflict created by the threesome.
Yes, but What Else Does it Do?
Though it manifests well in character dynamics, the Rule of Three applies to so much more. Because it’s so ingrained in us, we instinctively seek it out and it thereby seizes our attention and perks our interest.
Here are three other ways you can use the Rule of Three in your writing to strengthen your story.
1. Build tension
Story is about a character, in a setting, with a problem. The character embarks on a series of try/fail cycles. The number of cycles and how long this goes on will vary from story to story, but the reader is subliminally programmed to expect three.
The character makes an attempt and fails; tension is the result. When the character tries and fails a second time, the tension is heightened. Success on the third try feels right. Four attempts at the same feat is heading toward tedious.
Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Once is too easy; twice still doesn’t cut it. Three times is just right.
2. Facilitate memory
There are a couple of aspects to think about in this regard. Scientific research suggests that humans remember things best in groups of three. Also, our brains like to recognize and analyze patterns.
One point appears random. Two points don’t necessarily correlate. But when a third point of data is added to a scenario, a possible pattern forms, focusing the brain’s attention.
The other aspect is that readers tend to remember something that comes up three times, so you can use this to set up for later payoffs. Mention something early on then bring it up again down the road and you’ve set up an expectation in the reader’s mind. They remember and anticipate that third appearance.
Public speakers and comedians use the Rule of Three all the time to deliver important points and punchlines. You can do it, too, in your writing to spring a surprise. Establish those first two points to get your reader anticipating a third, then twist it.
I discussed this in my article, 5 Side-Splitting Ways to Infuse Humor Into Your Writing, and I hope you’ll give that a read. But here are a few short examples of the technique.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
“There are three principal ways to lose money: wine, women, and engineers. While the first two are more pleasant, the third is by far the more certain.”
“Three things your spouse wants you to do in the event of an argument—take a breath, take a hint, and take a hike.”
Veni, Vidi, Vici
Now that you have a firmer grasp on the Rule of Three, you are ready to go forth and conquer! Just be sure to remember the rule, know how to use it, and have fun!
How about you? Do you notice the Rule of Three in the books and movies you enjoy? Do you use it in your writing? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s write a scene using the Rule of Three. Choose a prompt from below or come up with your own idea. Write a scene where the character makes three attempts to solve a problem, escalating the tension after each failure, and ending with success on the third try.
- Liza has her routine ready for the cheerleader tryouts, but she’s not certain her ankle injury is sufficiently healed and it’s go time!
- Ralph can’t believe he’s actually traveling through space on a NASA assignment. Everything is awesome until he tries to contact Mission Control and the equipment fails.
- Jennie has been kidnapped and locked in a basement room. She must escape, using only the contents of her pocket and a piece of dirty string.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your work in the comments and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers! Commenting on three writers’ stories sounds just about right, don’t you think?