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What Is the Rule of Three?
The rule of three is a writing principle based on the idea that humans process information through pattern recognition. As the smallest number that allows us to recognize a pattern in a set, three can help us craft memorable phrases. The rule of three is also incredibly useful as a structural tool: comedians use the rule of three to craft three-part jokes (set up, build anticipation, punch line) and screenplays generally follow a three-act structure.
3 Examples of the Rule of Three
Once you start noticing the rule of three you’ll start to see it everywhere, especially in comedy, folk tales, copywriting, and public speaking. Some classic examples of the rule of three are:
- “The Three Little Pigs” (fable): The first little pig sets up the story by building his house of straw, which the wolf blows over. The same happens to the second pig’s stick house, creating a sense of anticipation. The third pig breaks the pattern when he builds his house out of bricks, pushing the fable’s resolution.
- “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (fairy tale): The first bed Goldilocks tries is too hard, the second too soft, and the third just right, allowing her to fall asleep and the conflict of the story to begin. When the bears come home, their actions parallel those of Goldilocks, as they notice and intruder in their home only after checking the first two beds.
- The Three Wise Men; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Christianty): In the Bible, baby Jesus is visited by an unnamed number of Magi, popularly represented as three wise men. The three Magi brought with them three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). Similarly, the concept of the Holy Trinity, that God can be represented by three distinct manifestations, was developed by early Christians.
3 Ways to Use the Rule of Three in Your Writing
Here are a few simple ways to get started with the rule of three:
- Three-part structure. Use a three-part structure to organize your writing. In the beginning, set things up. Then build anticipation, and finish with the punchline, resolution, or plot twist. The easiest way to do this is by having three characters experience the same situation in slightly different ways.
- Tricolon. At the sentence level, try using a group of three words that parallel each other in length and/or form. This is known as a tricolon and produces memorable, rhythmic phrases. For example: “We cannot desecrate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground,” from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Thomas Jefferson used a tricolon when he wrote the United States Declaration of Independence saying that, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are the unalienable rights of all humans that governments are meant to protect.
- Hendiatris. Use three words that work together to convey a single concept. This is called a hendiatris and is especially useful for advertising slogans and speechwriting. Think, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) and “Friends, romans, countrymen,” both from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
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