Fiction writing: The Rule of Threes

rule of threeThree is the very persuasive number. By learning the rule of threes you can improve your writing, give better speeches or even improve your comedic timing. (As a writer, I am only going to focus on the writing aspect of the rule of threes.)

What is it about the number three? It all comes down to how we process information. Studies have shown that people remember things best in chunks of three. Also, human have become proficient at recognizing patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements required for a pattern.

Things presented in threes are inherently more interesting, enjoyable and memorable. (See there is that three concept again.)

You may not have realized how many things are presented in this pattern. Check out these examples.

  • body, mind and spirit
  • Holy trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost
  • three wise men
  • THREE-MUSKETEERSIn stories – the three little pigs, the three musketeers
  • Trilogy – video games, books, and films all come in sets of three (Matrix, The Godfather, Lord of the Rings)
  • Pregnancy is divided into trimesters.
  • Time – past, present, future
  • In public safety – stop, look and listen
  • Three kingdoms of matter – mineral, vegetable or animal
  • Three inalienable rights from the U.S. Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
  • From the Gettysburg address – Government of the people, by the people and for the people

So how does this help you with your writing?

The rule of three is one of the oldest writing techniques and turns up in many old (and new) stories. The Rule of Three states hat events should happen in groups of three. Basically, your events should follow this pattern: establish conflict, build conflict, resolve conflict.

So when you put a character in danger, you should have them attempt to solve the problem with the first two attempts being failures.

3-pigs-hiTake the story of the three little pigs. The first attempt – a house made of straw – did not protect them from the big bad wolf. Neither did the second attempt of a house made of sticks. But the third try succeeded. A house of bricks kept the big bad wolf at bay.

The rule of three doesn’t have to just apply to the story level. It can also apply at the sentence level. I found this example on another website.

“She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was everything he couldn’t have.”

You can see the pattern: similar, similar, different. All the sentences begin with the same pattern of “She was…” The first two express positive sentiment but the third expresses conflict.

You can use the Rule of three to intensify your conflict and hook the reader. If your character has a run in with someone, the reader knows that this is probably not the end of the story. They expect there will be another encounter with that same person. You now have them expecting the upcoming conflict.

Because the rule of three creates reader expectations, there will be times that you want to avoid using it. You see this a lot in movies where the hero escapes one way in the beginning and then uses that same technique at the end of the movie but didn’t use it any other time.

Now that you know the rule of three, you can find yourself catching sight of it everywhere, and using its power to help you with your writing. But remember – this isn’t really a rule but a guideline.



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