The Rule of Three

Threes are important throughout human society, mythology, and literature. There’s something very ancient and instinctual about using threes, and you’ll find them everywhere. Storytelling is no different in this. One of the most common story structures is the three act structure, after all–a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even in school we’re taught that an essay needs three points to support it.

This can be used a ton of different ways–in the language itself, with repeating words or phrases; in plotting, with a certain event happening three different times, or an event building in three steps; and, perhaps my favorite, in characters.

An example of each:

Words:
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.)

Plotting:
Very common in fairy tales, such as in Rumpelstiltskin, both when the miller’s daughter weaves for three nights (and Rumpelstiltskin visits each night), and the three nights of name guessing.

Characters:
Again, common in nursery rhymes and fairy tales (The Three Little Pigs, Billy Goats Gruff, etc.), but can be found in a lot of popular culture, including a lot of my favorite stuff. In Harry Potter, you’ve got Harry, Hermione, and Ron. In Star Wars, you’ve got Luke, Leia, and Han. In Star Trek, you have Kirk, Spock, and Bones.

Since characters and character relationships have always been my favorite parts (both reading and writing) of stories, I tend to be most interested in this aspect of the Rule of Three. A story just seems stronger with three characters, doesn’t it? And sidekicks tend to come in three, too. Luna, Ginny, and Neville. Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2-D2. I think this somewhat stems from the idea of the triple deity–a single entity in three parts, with each part representing a certain aspect of the whole.

Anyway, it’s a neat thing to think about. Any examples you can think of that really work for you, Squiders?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I love this idea and use it all the time. I even wrote on where the color purple appeared three times in a story at pivotal points in the character’s journey. This stuff is subtle, but it works well.

    Reply

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