The rule of three is one of the most important rules in all of writing – but what is the rule of three? We’re going to explore this fascinating and useful rule by looking at examples in sentences, situations, and stories. This article will serve as a referential guide for you to circle back to whenever you’re stuck in a writing jam.
Rule of Three Literary Devices
Why is the rule of three important?
We often say “so-and-so” is an important rule in writing, but sometimes it’s an exaggeration. So believe me when I say the rule of three is an important rule in writing. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the most important rule in writing.
Because it affects everything from sentence structure to plot. And more importantly, it’s become an intrinsic communication pattern for people around the world.
For more on the basic ideas of the rule of three, check out the video below.
So we know this rule is an important writing principle, but how exactly is it used in three levels: sentences, situations, and stories? We’re going to explore each of those, but first let’s define rule of three.
THE RULE OF THREE DEFINITION LITERATURE
What is the rule of three?
The rule of three is a storytelling principle that suggests people better understand concepts, situations, and ideas in groups of three. Over time, the rule has been confirmed by anthropological experts as an archetypal principle that works on three levels: sentences, situations, and stories.
Subtypes of the Rule of Three
- Hendiatris: When three words express the same idea (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)
- Tricolon: When three parallel elements have the same number of words or syllables (veni, vedi, vici); (I came, I saw, I conquered)
- Rule of Thirds: When an image is divided into three sections
Magic Three Writing
The rule works in sentences
The rule is perhaps most commonly applied in sentences. And although you may think that makes it contrived, it’s actually almost always satisfying.
Take this sentence from our article on the Scorpion and the Frog for example: “the Scorpion and the Frog is a tale that can be used to demonstrate, subvert, and communicate character archetypes.”
In this case, the sentence uses the rule to emphasize three action verbs: demonstrate, subvert, and communicate. The rule doesn’t have to use action verbs though – it can also use nouns.
Take this example from our article on the best John Carpenter movies: His stories explore the dark side of the unknown, the hubris of man’s institutions, and the middle ground where science and the spiritual world meet.
Let’s highlight those nouns in bold: the dark side of the unknown, the hubris of man’s institutions, and the middle ground where science and the spiritual world meet. It has a nice flow to it, doesn’t it?
You may also notice the rule in marketing. Here are some rule of three examples in slogans and film titles.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
- Stop, Look and Listen
- Sex, Lies and Videotape
- Snap! Crackle! Pop!
All in all, this rule is an essential part of writing patterned titles and sentences. As you’re writing, remember to incorporate the rule to generate better flow.
Rule of Three Examples in Writing
The rule adds complexity to situations
How many times have you been watching a movie or TV show and a character outlines the antagonist's plan in a group of three?
“He’s going to attack the princess’s transport ship, take her prisoner, then destroy her home planet.”
We don’t just see this in Star Wars, we see this in just about every story known to man. When using the power of threes to describe situations, always save the most important point for last.
Think about it: you don’t want to lead with the most important point, because then the two subsequent points would seem innocuous.
Sometimes, the most important point may actually seem like the most forgettable. In the Star Wars screenplay, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes Anakin Skywalker as “the best star pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend.” “Best star pilot in the galaxy” may seem like the most important point, but it’s actually “friendship” that takes the cake. Through this use of threes, Lucas inserts a resonant emotional beat.
What Does Rule of Three Mean?
The rule details plot structure
The rule also serves as the backbone for the ancient three-act structure. The three-act structure argues that every story works best in groups of three, with a beginning, middle, and end.
For more on the three-act structure, check out the video below.
The power of threes also works on a macro-level with character relationships. Here are some popular examples:
- The Three Musketeers
- The Three Pigs
- The Three Stooges
- The Three Wise Men
- Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Harry Potter)
- Luke, Leia, and Han-Solo (Star Wars)
- Bella, Edward, and Jacob (Twilight)
- The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (A Christmas Carol)
Some of the most famous character relationships of all-time are rooted in threes. There are three ways to write trios of characters: the first is to put all three on the same page (Three Wise Men).
The second is to have conflict materialize within the group (Harry, Ron, and Hermione). The third is to have a love triangle (Bella, Edward, and Jacob). The second and third ways are only differentiated by whether or not they have romantic elements.
The examples we outlined in this article are just some of the ways you can use the rule. Next time you read an article or watch a movie, pay attention to how the writer(s) used this rule — you’ll likely learn something new about storytelling patterns.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The rule of thirds applies this idea of triplets in a visual sense. In our next article, we break down how to use the rule of thirds by analyzing examples in Thor, The Shining, and more. By the end, you’ll know how to apply the rule of thirds to create a distinctly patterned visual image.