Friends, Romans, Countryman, the rule of three will diminish your blood, sweat, and tears as you write through the good, the bad, and the ugly. The rule of three creates a powerful pattern that readers intuitively recognize. We’re conditioned to find sets of three in the world around us.
- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
- Faith, Hope, and Love
- Veni, Vidi, Vici
- Stop, Look and Listen
- Sex, lies, and videotape
- Government of the people, by the people, for the people
- Unwept, unhonored, unsung
- Duty – Honor – Country
- Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato
- Better, Faster, Stronger
- Love, Life, Lust
Groups of three are everywhere — from nature to art (Rule of Thirds) to philosophy and logic (Three Laws of Thought). As a writer, you can use sets of three to create interest, surprise, and even build tension with your audience.
The Rule of Three
Our minds are built around pattern recognition. So, we intuitively search for connections and series. In communication, the rule of three brings together a trio of events, characters, or thoughts to create a feeling of satisfaction. You often see groupings of three in slogans, headlines, titles, and narrative structure. You can probably recite a few right now like, Stop, Drop and Roll or
“There must be something comforting about the number three. People always give up after three.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Lying Detective, Sherlock BBC
Our minds look for a pattern after two things. This narrows our focus as we wait for the third, gaining the writer a valuable moment of attention.
Why it Works
People can remember three things easily. Even with limited attention spans, our minds look for this pattern and wait for the third item. That small amount of focus is enough to group the three items together and make them more memorable.
“Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?” – The Dick Van Dyke Show
In comedy, adding a third, absurd option creates amusement. You see frenetic moments where characters screech a series of three suggestions, with the last being unexpected. Often, parodies copy a well-known title and put something silly as the last item, such as Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking.
How to Use The Rule of Three
When using the rule of three, you create tension based on pattern recognition. The audience must clearly understand you are setting up a series. Whatever you deliver as the third must be the most important in the series. If the tone is series, this should be something powerful and resonating. If the tone is light, this can be amusing or frivolous.
Writers often use a series of three adjectives to describe. The grouping pleases the brain and feels wonderfully complete.
“You don’t understand! I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” – On the Waterfront
Three adjectives create a rhythm that audiences recognize. When you write, look for ways to bring three adjectives together — even better if you can create a surprise on the third.
Slogans and Taglines
Whenever advertisers develop a slogan or tagline, they often cut down ideas to a series of three. Often, this will only be three adjectives strung together or three strong words. Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan used the rule of three to introduce his political ideology to voters. Nike’s tagline “Just Do It” encompasses the empowered athleticism of its brand. You can practically hear the “That Was Easy,” voiceover whenever someone mentions Staples.
While this may seem easy, it’s actually difficult to put together a memorable trio. You can’t simply rely on the three words to create a great headline. In fact, my pet peeve is when companies grab three obvious business terms and string them together. Who hasn’t seen “Dependable. Expert. Trusted.” printed across a billboard?
Titles + Headlines
Similar to slogans, Titles and Headlines benefit from brevity. They need to encompass a lot of thoughts in a single, memorable statement. Eat. Pray. Love. rolls off the tongue quickly. Steve Jobs famously rolled out the iPad2 saying, “Lighter, Thinner, Faster.” Your mind automatically completes the statement, “Ready, Set…” with “Go.”
You often see titles and headlines limited to three words. Many times, they’re simply three verbs or adjectives strung together to create a specific impression.
People often joke about Golden trios in popular fiction like Harry Potter or love triangles like in Twighlight. However, the simplicity of balancing three characters is easy to manage. It creates just enough conflict to create interest without expecting modern audiences to remember complex relationships.
Stories aimed at young audiences or stories where other aspects of the narrative are more complex, benefit from limiting the focus to three key characters. You’ll always remember The Three Stooges or Jerry, Elaine, and George from Seinfeld.
In storytelling, writers often use a series of three incidents. We learn this format from an early age and see it in classic children’s stories like The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Three Billy Goats Gruff.
If two things happen in a row, the third in the series of events becomes more significant. The audience will focus on this one and expect it to be the ultimate event. In fact, most narrative structures (the classic story arc) follow three acts with a beginning, middle, and end.
This pops up everywhere, from trilogies of books and Movies (Star Wars) to storytelling devices (three wishes) to simple patterns of everyday speech (morning, noon, and night).
Writing Style Tips
You’ve probably been taught to use groups of three whenever you write an outline, and it’s a good tip! People expect point three to follow points one and two. People will remember this, especially if you recap after each point.
Similarly, groups of three create pleasing patterns. Use them to create interest (from suspense to amusement).
Finally, find ways to turn cliches of three into unexpected surprises. You can jerk an audience into a laugh by flipping a well-known group of three on its head.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll appreciate my other articles about writing and communication. As a Virginia writer, I often post articles about communication, psychology, and other creative topics. Follow me on Facebook or Instagram to be the first to know when new content drops.