Rule of three (writing)

Rule of three (writing)
The Three Bears

The "rule of three" is a principle in writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader/audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans ("Go, fight, win!") to films, many things are structured in threes. Examples include The Three Stooges, The Three Musketeers, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Three Blind Mice.

A series of three is often used to create a progression in which the tension is created, then built up, and finally released. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped together in threes in order to emphasize an idea.

The Latin phrase, "omne trium perfectum" (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) also conveys the same idea as the "rule of three", interestingly using exactly three words.



One of the best examples of the power of the Rule of Three is in comedy. Three is the smallest number of points that can form a pattern, and comedians exploit the way our minds perceive expected patterns to throw you off track (and make you laugh) with the third element.

  • How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.
  • I know three French words: Bonjour, merci, and surrender.
  • I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead. —Laura Kightlinger
  • I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land. —Jon Stewart
  • I would cut these three departments if I was made president: Energy, Commerce, and oh what's the third one? -Rick Perry

The generic three-panel daily comic strip, and "Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman" joke are some more examples of the rule of three used in comedy.


In storytelling in general, authors often create triplets or structures in three parts. In its simplest form, this is merely beginning, middle, and end, from Aristotle's Poetics. Syd Field wrote a popular handbook of screenwriting, in which he touted the advantages of three act structure over the more traditional five act structure used by William Shakespeare and many other famous play-writers.

Snow White receives three visits from her wicked stepmother

Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folk Tale, concluded that any of the elements in a folk tale could be negated twice, so that it would repeat thrice.[1] This is common not only in the Russian tales he studied, but throughout folk tales and fairy tales—most commonly, perhaps, in that the youngest son is often the third, but fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form, a small sample of which includes:

  • Jack and the Beanstalk has Jack climb the beanstalk thrice.
  • The wicked stepmother visits Snow White in the forest thrice before she finally causes her to fall dead
  • Rumpelstiltskin spins thrice for the heroine and lets her guess his name thrice over a period of three days.
  • The hero of The Twelve Dancing Princesses follows them to their ball thrice
  • In East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the heroine receives three gifts while she is searching for her lost husband; when she finds where he is prisoner, she must use them to thrice bribe her way to the hero (the first two times she was unable to tell her story because he lay in a drugged sleep).
  • In Cinderella and many of its variants, such as Cap O' Rushes, The Wonderful Birch, and Catskin, the heroine goes to the ball (or other event) thrice
  • In The Rose-Tree and The Juniper Tree, the dead child, transformed into a bird, receives three gifts that it uses for revenge.
  • In Brother and Sister, Brother is transformed into a deer when he drinks from the third stream that their wicked stepmother enchanted, and when Sister is killed by the same stepmother, she visits her child's room thrice, being caught and restored the third time.
  • The hero used magical horses to climb thrice to The Princess on the Glass Hill.
  • In The Death of Koschei the Deathless, Prince Ivan must watch Baba Yaga's horses three days to receive a horse that can outrun Koschei's.
  • In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, a woman says she will bear the king three marvelous children; when they reappear, their envious aunts attempt to kill them by sending them on three quests, after the three marvelous things of the title.
  • In The Silent Princess, a prince breaks a peasant woman's pitcher thrice, and is cursed; when he finds the title princess, he must persuade her to speak thrice.
  • In The Love for Three Oranges, the hero picks three magical oranges, and only with the third is able to keep the woman who springs out of it.
  • In Lewis Carroll´s Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 7, The Dormouse tells the story of three little sisters who lived on a treacle well.
  • In Charles Dickens´ A Christmas Carol, Marley's Ghost tells Scrooge he will receive visits from three spirits: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to which Scrooge says, “Spirit, I fear you most of all”.

In most folklore, there are three tasks which have to be performed to reach a certain goal.

Rhetoric and public speaking

The use of a series of three elements is also a well-known feature of public oratory. Max Atkinson, in his book on oratory entitled 'Our Masters' Voices'[2] gives interesting examples of how public speakers use three-part phrases to generate what he calls 'claptraps', evoking audience applause.

Examples include the Nazi slogan Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer!, the appeal to "government of the people, by the people, for the people" in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's mantra of "Education, education, education". The last of these echoes common phrases such as "Location, location, location" (discussing real estate), or "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" (attributed to Benjamin Disraeli). An early example from Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico ("on the Gallic War') is Veni, vidi, vici.

Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist and preacher was also known for his uses of tripling and the rule of three throughout his many influential speeches. For example, the speech "Non-Violence and Racial Justice" contained a binary opposition made up of the rule of three: "insult, injustice and exploitation," followed by a few lines later by, "justice, good will and brotherhood." Conversely, segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace famously inveighed: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural address.

One of the best known instances of this in written political rhetoric is the appeal of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as exemplary of the most basic "unalienable rights".

The appeal of the three-fold pattern is illustrated by the transformation of Winston Churchill's famous reference to "blood, toil, tears and sweat" (echoing Garibaldi and Theodore Roosevelt) in popular recollection to "blood, sweat and tears".


The use of three elements is present in the three Abrahamic religions:

See also


  1. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  2. ^ Atkinson. M. (1984) Our Masters' Voices: Language and Body Language of Politics Routledge

External links

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