by Patricia Bradley
What is the rule of three? It’s a principle that says concepts and ideas presented in threes are more interesting, enjoyable, and memorable. In art the rule of thirds help you visualize the canvas or piece of pottery better.
As a potter, I was familiar with the rule of three in shaping a vase. The ratio of the curve should be 1/3 to 2/3. See the vase to the right. The shape can also be inverted with the wide part near the top. And the rule comes into play when making designs or glazing a piece by visualizing the piece in thirds.
How does the rule of three apply to fiction? I’ve been doing a workshop with Alicia Rasley on writing emotion that draws in the reader, and that’s where I’ve been learning how to use the rule of three in fiction. (among other things)
The rule of three is an unwritten rule (or suggestion) that says events in your plot should happen in groups of three. Think three-act structure; beginning, middle, and end; set up of conflict, build conflict and resolved conflict.
Act 1: Set up
Act 2: Rising conflict
Act 3: Climax and resolution
Some examples: In the Christmas Carol, three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge. Jack, in Jack and the Beanstalk,climbs the beanstalk three times. Dorothy finds three friends and she has to click her heels three times to go home. Goldilocks sat in three chairs, laid in three beds, and there were three bears. Rick in Casablanca refuses to help three times.
The rule of three also creates reader expectation. The first time you mention something, the reader just sees it. If you mention that something two times, the reader is going to pay attention—it’s important, it stands out. When you mention it the third time, the reader is looking for it.
Is there ever a time you don’t want to use three incidents? Yes—suppose you have a heroine who comes up with a unique solution for a problem in Act I,and you want the heroine to used the unique solution at the end to solve the crime. That’s when you wouldn’t use it again in Act II, because then the reader will expect to see it in Act III, the ending. You don’t want to telegraph to the reader that it’s coming.
Rule of three also applies to dialog. Stick to three lines of dialog. If you need to use more, break the dialog with he/she said or an action tag. Here’s an example from my current WIP:
“She talked to everyone, especially the Elvises. She even talked to me, asked if I was coming back Saturday night. I told probably not, that I was attending a party at Judge Winslow’s.” Nana nodded with a wink. “Impressed her, I did.”
Next month I’ll be expanding the rule of three on how to use it in a major scene. Until then, be on the lookout for the way authors use the rule as you read. I’ll bet you’ll find a lot of examples. If you can think of any offhand, please share them in the comments.