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.
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.