The Rule of Three

by Liz Bureman | 49 comments

Part of storytelling is creating something memorable. You want your readers to remember your characters, the world that you've created, and what happens to those characters in that world. This is nothing new; back in the earliest days of storytelling, before we had the written word, those who were responsible for the oral tradition had to make sure it was preserved.

One of the most effective ways to enforce memory is through repetition, and so one of the most common storytelling techniques was born: the Rule of Three.

What Is the Rule of Three?

Stories that use the Rule of Three work their way into the reader's head through repetition of part of the story. The first two times build tension, and the third releases the tension, either through resolution or a twist. Traditional folktales have this structure all through them, with three brothers or three sisters who are charged with a task, and the first two fail with the third succeeding. The pattern also finds its way into political speeches or moments. Caesar's “Veni, vidi, vici” in regards to his military campaign in Britain is one of the most famous of these examples, and one of the oldest.

The Rule of Three is often found in modern comedy as well. Everyone's heard at least one joke in their lifetime involving a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde, right? Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein does a variation on this when Frau Blucher asks the titular doctor if he'd care for a brandy, warm milk, or Ovaltine before bed, with the doctor declining with increasing exasperation each time. Even the common trilogy structure falls into the Rule of Three. Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, and the original Star Wars are some of the most famous examples.

The Rule of Three is a helpful way to get creative juices flowing. If you're able to get three main characters fleshed out, or determine three potential Chekhov's guns, or even get your story split into a beginning, middle, and end, you've got solid starting points for your creativity to flow from.


Write about the season change from summer to fall. Use the Rule of Three as much as possible, whether it's in story structure, dialogue, or characterization. Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. James Hall

    A leaf fell out of a tree.
    And then there were three.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      This made me smile, but even better it made me stop and consider how a dozen well chosen words can instantly create an image.

    • James Hall

      Yes. Often in my book I try to get an emotional response out of the reader. Sometimes this requires chapter and chapter of preparatory work. Who knew that the same result could be accomplished in so few words.

      Broken – A short story I wrote a few days ago.

    • Katie Hamer

      Thanks for an interesting insight in to how you work, and for providing a link to your short story. It packs an emotional punch and must have been hard to write.

    • James Hall

      It wasn’t near as hard to write as it was to edit. Because that is when my mind wanted to pick out all the details.

      I also feel it has a good purpose and offers a lot to reflect on. Offers up a lot of questions.

      Thank you for reading it Katie!

    • Saunved Mutalik

      Loved the beauty of the words…simple…but effective! 🙂

    • James Hall

      A man of few words says much.

      Read my Broken short story (below) – it’s only 700 words.

    • T.H. Atcheson

      Nice! Unfortunately, there are more than three on my lawn.

    • James Hall

      Of course! Of course!

      There are only three left in the tree. The rest are on the lawn.

  2. Marilyn Ostermiller

    Autumn trumpets its arrival with staccato bursts of scarlet foliage, underlying notes of mellow gold and russet.

    • James Hall

      Love the reference to musics and tones of color.

    • Susan

      Me, too, Marilyn.

    • John Fisher

      The dramatic colors as a trumpeting of the arrival — I love this imagery!

  3. annette skarin

    Wake up, move about, go to sleep.

    • James Hall

      I do that. Every single day. Of my life.

    • annette skarin


    • John Fisher

      One would hope!

  4. ijerry

    Paris wakes with with coffee, arouses the senses at noon with the scent of fresh baked baguette, and completes the evening with flowers, a glass of wine and a kiss beneath the street lamps to the bells of Notre Dame.

    • Susan

      C’est magnifique!

      The details you added about the kiss (street lamps / bells) made me linger in the piece before I let go at the end of the sentence.

      Interesting how each of the THREE got more complex than the previous.

  5. Para Friv

    I do not know much about this but I think the law should set for myself and everyone around qunah, thank you for providing information.

  6. George Wu

    hot, warm, cool

    • T.H. Atcheson

      Cute 🙂

    • John Fisher

      Everyone is so short and sweet today, so economical of words! So much can be loaded into so few words. Including your three!

  7. T.H. Atcheson

    The nights were growing longer. Susan found herself inching the window down, throwing an extra blanket on the bed, and inviting her spaniel up to cuddle. Mornings were chilly, with fog and heavy dews. She had to bundle up in a sweater before heading out for a walk with the dog. And nature was celebrating its bounty with pumpkins plump and orange in the fields, squirrels stashing walnuts in unlikely hiding places and chrysanthemums popping up in yards and on porches everywhere. It made her nostalgic for cozy, firelit evenings with hot apple cider, shared with close friends.

    • Rebecca

      Cozy! Makes me want to curl up by a fire with a book and a mug of that cider. Great detail.

    • T.H. Atcheson


  8. Rebecca

    Every evening of the year, the days close themselves like a book, summing themselves up sooner and sooner each day after June 20th. In the middle of summer, the days are long, detailed novels. When the fiery autumn sun turns the horizon into a warm hearth, they are short stories. During the twilit fringes of the year that is winter, they are paragraphs.

    • Joe Bunting

      This is so beautiful, Rebecca. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Susan

      Stunning concept,eloquently presented. I think this will be an image I will carry with me.

    • Rebecca

      THANK YOU!!! 🙂

    • John Fisher

      I like the days closing themselves like a book, each day a day that tells its own unique story — whether epic novel, short story. or paragraph. Beautiful!

    • James Hall

      Absolutely amazing prose. I love the metaphor between the days and stories.

  9. John Fisher

    The park is, thankfully on this day of the fruition of our national government’s dysfunction, a city property and not a federal one. And it’s far beyond the usual conception of a city park — acre upon acre of riparian forest, the bike/hike trail meandering through trees so thick one can’t walk between many of them, nor through the surrounding undergrowth, the silent slow river just over that rise yonder, all home to the deer and the cottontail and the yellow crested night heron. Daily temperatures confined for the first time in six months to the sub-hundreds, the hint of reddening of the leaves and the freshness of the breeze announce that it is no longer summer. I have ventured to walk this trail again twice in the past couple of weeks, and the sense of an increased endurance — re-emerging after a traumatized summer and the accompanying cessation of my former almost-daily walks — suggests that I have a much longer hike in me today.

    A figure approaches from the other direction, his jogging gait familiar, and as we close upon each other his features coalesce into the young man, shaved head, back-pack and an air about him that bespeaks military, that I would see every single day in my former more active season. Always friendly, this young man, always a smile and a cheery word. My heart lifts and I venture: “Guy, you still AT it!!” And as we pass close, his ready reply — “Ohhhhhh yeah, it’s . . .”, his words fading into incoherence from my aging and loud-music-abused hearing — imparts a surprisingly giddy sense of belonging; I KNOW people here, even if I don’t know names; I’m a member of the peripatetic community who love this place.

    I approach one of the well-spaced green benches and gratefully sit. Contemplating the skyline, I catch motion in a tree, one of the plentiful bushy-tailed squirrels who live here. This little guy/gal is agility I can only dream of; scampering along the ancient limb with frequent stops to curiously check me out. Then getting back to business, transitioning effortlessly from that limb to one of an adjoining tree, continuing the journey up higher in an arc that carries it another twenty feet and onto a well-placed appendage of a third tree, an epic voyage, essay, mid-voyage, arrival.

    The sunlight is different than it was two months ago, it has a softening quality that brings up a line from an old song, ” . . . the autumn of my years . . . .” My eyes close, my head droops deliciously, and I enter a twilight land of consciousness, timeless, cut loose from worries, footfalls of indigenous forbears resonant in the giant weave of the fabric of life that connects us.

    I come back gently to the present, rise and continue my journey on legs steadied by the rest. Running shoes scoot on the trail’s surface, my friend coming up behind. I turn and smile at him again, and as he approaches he says something that completely escapes my hearing but is reassuring, comfortable as the worn sneakers on my feet. I continue on my way, ancient, fresh, childlike with eyes still discovering the world.

    As I begin to cover the last fifty yards to the parking strip, I encounter the young man a final time, and this time no words are necessary — the smiles are enough.

    • Katie Hamer

      I’m right there in the park with you! Brilliant description 🙂

    • John Fisher

      Thank you Katie!

    • Susan

      Enjoyed it. These phrases particularly caught my imagination for additional contemplation:
      “…an epic voyage, essay, mid-voyage, arrival.”
      “…footfall of indigenous forbears resonant in the giant weave of the fabric of life that connects us.”
      “…he says something that completely escapes my hearing but is reassuring, comfortable…”

    • John Fisher

      Thank you Susan, glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your feedback!

    • James Hall

      Fits the thumbnail of your shoe. 🙂

      I enjoyed this piece. It is really, really hard to write a story with reflection and very little plot, but you accomplished it with flying colors in this story. It was very interesting your use of terminology in this piece. At points it read almost in a textbook factual manner, and in others it read in a poetic manner. This passage had a good balance.

    • John Fisher

      Ha-HAA, you’re the first to “get” my thumbnail, chosen with my hikes (complete w/ stickers) in mind.

      I have to confess to getting some of my terminology (“yellow-crested night heron” and “riparian [river] forest”) off very thoughtfully-placed signage in the park itself. I think it’d be fascinating to be a zoologist!

      The prose/poetry balance is precisely what I’m trying to do with my writing.

      Thank you, James!

    • James Hall

      As odd as it may be, your thumbnail has always made be think of running/hiking. I don’t know why, but this story just brought it to the forefront of my mind.

      I think you are doing great. It is simply awesome to watch writers grow and challenge themselves on here.

    • John Fisher

      Thank you So Much for the encouragement!

  10. Katie Hamer

    Thanks for such a great writing prompt, Liz. I’ve read all the comments, and have to say, they really cheered me up on what is proving to be a grey, damp, and misty day. I read the Rule of Three with great interest, and will definitely be seeing how I can apply it to my writing!

  11. David

    The alarm, ruthless, harbinger of toils to come. Glance through the panes at the wispy grey of dawn just breaking. Lather the teeth, lather the face, lather the skin to rinse the night away. Fresh brewed aroma warm in a mug, warming the hands, warming the senses. Out the door into the cool grey, through the misty air to the dew covered car. Motor hums to whisk away, through the grey, off into the toil and labor of another day.

  12. Winnie

    I can’t write like Willa Cather, but here’s another angle on fall.

    Uncontrollable sneezing; so unseasonal, it should come in spring with all the pollen. Must be the chill seeping in under the doors. Snatch a Kleenex, wipe, dab, dab. And a last sniff. Bodily fluids should remain where they belong.
    Ah, it strikes him, a gluwein will go down well tonight – he can feel it’s glowing warmth, first on his tongue, then suffusing his body. His old bones could do with lubrication. Might even help ward off the arthritis when it really gets cold.
    The oil heater under the house is slowly sputtering to life, coughing and wheezing, and the pipes idled by summer are kicking into life again. Something else to look forward to: a snug house with gluwein in hand. He always leaves the basement door open so that comforting hum fills the background.
    As he sinks into his favorite chair while kitchen sounds herald supper-in-the-making, he feels a cool hand on his forehead. “I thought this would happen. Walking around without your sweater again.”
    Now it’s the last sign of the tail-end of summer. In bed, sniffling, and suffocating under a pile of blankets, with bottles of medicines lined up on the locker.
    And no gluwein.

    • Jacqueline

      love you writing, my mum always told me to put on a jumper when its cold

  13. ebog

    Law of three. It sounds interesting. Now I know to such concepts. So I’ve seen a lot of drama or story and then use the law of three. It is great

  14. Alex

    Colours. It’s all about the colours. Colours are important. Summer is monochrome. It’s green. Green leaves, green grass, green fields. But autumn. Autumn is so much more. The leaves change, red, orange, yellow. Fields of ripe harvest, forests of spectral colour, even the sky. Deep red sunsets, grey cloudy skies, glorious sunny days. There’s so much more variety. Summer is just one long, unchanging season, autumn is all about change.

    The weather changes too. It goes from being always hot and sunny to being changeable. One day it rains, one day the wind blows so strong you feel as though you will be lifted from your feet, and the next, it’s sunny. But not too hot. The kind of sunny where you can go outside and walk, even run, without sweating. The kind of sunny where you don’t burn if you stay in it too long. The kind of sunny where the ground isn’t too hot to touch. It’s a time of showers. Rain-filled days where you sit and watch the droplets fall down your window. Or even better, brief showers. You go outside and that glorious smell. The season of Petrichor. It only lasts a few moments, but those few moments walking amid the smell of autumn are magical.

    It’s not just the smell though; it’s the sound. The crisp crunch of dried leaves underfoot, the rustle of branches in the wind, the patter of rain on the roof. It’s a subtle sound; not like the chirping of spring or the loud noise of summer activity; it’s a noise you have to be silent for. You have to just sit and listen. If you don’t, you’ll miss it, and it’ll be winter again; the snow will fall and deaden the sounds, you wont want to go outside at all, and everything loses its colour again. You’ll have to wait three more seasons for autumn to come around again.



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