Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Rule of Three

by Jill Williamson

The rule of three pretty much means that three is an awesome number. Three feels natural and complete. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.



And if Schoolhouse Rock wasn't awesome enough, do any of these sound familiar?

Goldilocks and the Three Bears
The Three Musketeers
Three Blind Mice
The Three Stooges
The Three Little Pigs
Three Amigos!
Three's Company
Three Billy Goats Gruff
Three Little Kittens that Lost Their Mittens
The Three Caballeros

And ...
There are three feet in a yard
Things come in 3D!
Three wise men
Three-ring circus
The three-act structure
The third time's the charm.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic.
There are three primary colors and three secondary colors
Three-legged races. So fun.
Three french hens
We Three Kings
There were three Bronte sisters
Rock, paper, scissors
Three witches in Macbeth
The three-piece suit
Ready ... aim ... fire!
"Three shall be the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be three!"
Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich
A long shot in basketball is worth three points
Lights, camera, action!
Triangles are the strongest shape
On the count of three ...
On your mark ... get set ... go!
Scrooge is visited by three ghosts.
"A cord of three strands is not easily broken." -Ecclesiastes 4:12
And, of course, the trilogy

So, now that I've proved to you just have awesome the number three is, let me say something a bit more useful. This is one of the most simplest storytelling devices known to man. Three is the minimum number to create a pattern. It's also the most popular pattern for telling jokes and stories. The first two items build tension, and the third item releases the tension and often incorporates a clever twist. You may see how this is familiar when you think of things like The Three Little Pigs. If the first pig and second pigs were smart enough, it wouldn't be much of a story, right? It's often the third pig or brother or attempt that gets it right. It takes three tries to beat the clock.

Threes are so ingrained in our culture, people expect them. So maybe if you notice you've got too many threes in your story, cut some out and save them for the most important things. One of my writing quirks is using the triplet. For example: I stood up, walked to the door, and opened it. I do this so much, I have to go back in my rewriting and change many of them so that I don't it.

I just like them so much!

The point is, when things come in threes, they are funnier, more effective, and super-satisfying to the reader. Now, they can be considered a stereotype too, so be careful to make your threes unique. But using a three is a great way to make your writing stick with your reader. So if you have something important or significant to say, consider working it into a three.

Take a look at your manuscript. Do you have any threes? Too many threes? And, did I forget any famous threes in my list?

42 comments:

  1. I am in fine art and the basic rule of thumb is odd numbers. Since 1 is too boring and 5 is too daunting, I usually stick with 3 : ) I have lots of threes. They are just so much fun! Cool post, and anyone who plays schoolhouse rock is a friend of mine : )

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    1. Good point about art, Alyson! I heart Schoolhouse Rock too. What's your favorite one?

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  2. ~The three song is stuck in my head now! Such a catchy tune! Totally Spies had three spies! =D
    Very often I end up with three characters. At school, me and my other two buddies were a group. I guess three is just perfect. If the two of them get into an argument, you can always count on the third dude to sort things out!

    Thanks for the post Jill. ^^

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    1. Nice, River. With three there is always a mediator. I like it. :-)

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  3. Beginning . . . Middle . . . and End are an important set of threes when it comes to writing. But you are so right. Groups of threes just sound better then groups of less then that.
    Thanks so much for the post, Ms. Williamson!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  4. This is a great post, Jill! I've never though about threes like this before...

    Threes are always great in photography too. :) Have three objects makes this picture more interesting. :)

    ~Abby

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    1. Right, photography! :) And kind of like foreground, middleground, background...and the rule of thirds...etc.

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    2. Good point about photography, Abby.

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    3. Yeah, Amanda. The rule of thirds. Nice one.

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  5. It's a nice post. I do like number three actually.
    it reminded me of the time I played the third pig in a play in Kindergarten.

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    1. Nice, Chhavi! The third pig. Now that's something to remember forever. And the best of the pigs, too, I must say. lol

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  6. I don't think I use a ton of "threes", although when I do I tend to do what you do. :D

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    1. Ahhh! Triplets. Watch out for them. They're sneaky. :-)

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  7. Such a cool post! I'd never really thought of 3's in this way. OOH! I thought of one! The Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. :D I love this post.

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    1. Good one, Rachel! I can't believe I forgot that one.

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  8. Harry Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter!

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    1. Nice. And such a fun threesome they are too. :-)

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    2. Sam Astrid and Edilio in the Gone series? The three leaders. And Drake Diana and Caine?

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  9. Great post Jill! Would you say three also comes back in how much you repeat something? Like a certain quote or action comes back three times in a story before it sinks in with your MC for example?

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    1. I don't know, but it sure sounds clever, Arlette. I'd think that would indeed make it more poignant and memorable.

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  10. When my parents were selling their house my mom did a lot of research on decorating and they tell you to out things in threes. Lol
    Before you wrote this I had noticed on amazon from reading back cover copy that theirs almost always three problems listed, I try to look at tha tplanning a story now. I also tend to use threes in description.

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    1. Ooh, that's interesting, Tonya. Using threes in your back cover blurb. That would make it feel all nice and tiny, I think.

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  11. Great post Jill! I don't notice a significance of threes in my writing, except in my groupings of characters, but I do use a lot of triplet lines like you. I tend to overuse commas.

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    1. Ah, the evil triplet. We must not allow it to multiply. It must remain equal among sentence structures! Commas are cool as long as you're using them correctly. :-)

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  12. Tricycles!
    Club sandwiches (three slices of bread)!
    Bed bugs (they bite in groups of three)!
    Snow White (in a certain version the wicked stepmother tries to kill Snow White three times: using the poisoned comb, the lethally tight corset, and of course the apple)!
    Love triangles!
    Cerberus (the three-headed dog that guards the gateway to hell in Greek mythology)!

    There are secret threes everywhere!!

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    1. Tierney! You cracked me up with those bedbugs. Good job on these. Cerberus... nice.

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  13. Oh--way too many threes in my writing. I need to get a hold of that :-/

    The Trinity! God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
    The three sisters in Cinderella, if that counts.

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  14. Threes! I got so many good ideas when reading this post. There are threes everywhere I agree. Maybe I don't have quite enough though. Oooh, had a sudden plot idea. Thanks!

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    1. You're welcome, Imogen. Hope it works out wonderfully. :-)

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  15. Third time's a charm!
    Three times a bridesmaid, never a bride.
    (Ok, so maybe that last one's not so magical. More melancholy perhaps.) :)
    Thanks for this insight!

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    1. LOL It's still a three, Megan, magical or not. :-)
      Good ones.

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  16. I never really thought about threes before, but you're right; they do seem to be everywhere. I've noticed that a lot of plots (including the one in my WIP) have three major disasters.

    And I feel like a total nerd for getting the Monty Python reference :)

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  17. Harry, Ron, and Hermione! And Fluffy from the first book! And waltzes. And I've noticed that 7 is really common in fantasy books as the "magic" number, though it isn't as common as three. Oh, three wishes, in Aladdin!

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  18. Well, I have my MC and his two allies, and that makes three, but that's all I can think of off the top of my head, when it comes to using threes in my story.

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  19. My MC has 3 best friends, Demi, Devon and James.
    Love triangles, not magical, but they are 3.
    And DC Talk, again not magical, but there was three and they're pretty cool

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!