Writing With The Power of Three
How can we make use of the powerful rule of three in our writing?
Melissa Dahl, writing for the American NBC news site, uses the example of the spooky and frequent phenomenon of three celebrities dying in quick succession. Her example: Ed McMahon dying on 23 June, 2009, followed two days later by Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Some of my kin believed in the death by threes. If two relatives passed away within a few months of each other, the speculation was when—not if—the third death would occur.
There is no logic to the rule of three. According to Dahl, it is human to look for order in an often random world. We identify patterns, even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny, to make sense of what happens to us and around us.
The rule of three is a strong pattern, embedded in western literature and culture.
Fairy tales Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Blind Mice. The Three Little Pigs.
Fiction titles The Three Musketeers. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Eat, Pray, Love.
Fiction structure Trilogies. Three-act plays. Stories and movies often contain a third item or development, that relates to the previous two items or developments by extending, augmenting or contradicting them.
Phrases Location, location, location. Blood, sweat and tears. I came, I saw, I conquered. Every Dick, Tom and Harry.
Joke structure X, Y and Z went into the pub.
Developing a tripartite structure in writing
Because the rule of three is so dominant in western culture, it makes sense to considering seeing if it works for your story idea. For example, could your character–
- experience two failures or problems, before finding success?
Climber fails to summit twice, and then succeeds.
- get involved with two ‘bad’ people before finding the ‘good’ one?
The prince asks the two evil step-sisters to try on the glass slipper, before asking Cinderella.
- undertake three tests or challenges, known beforehand (Son, you must bring back three magical items) or realised retrospectively?
Luke Skywalker must destroy the Death Star, win over Leia and learn to use the Force.
- journey to three places?
Eat, Pray, Love
- experience three transformational events/lessons?
Dickens’ The Christmas Carol