Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rule of Three

I have somehow avoided a blog on this topic, but when I am live in a workshop (and as I am writing this new book) I am constantly referring to this basic rule of drama.

So okay, let’s get down to it: the Rule Of Three.

Hmm, how to define this…

Well. It’s a rule of comedy that anything is funnier in threes. It’s a rule of learning that it takes three repetitions to assimilate a thought. The Three-Act Structure – it’s based on a rhythm of three: Setup, Complications, and Resolution.

Three main characters. Three questions. Three wishes. “Third time’s the charm.” “Three strikes, you’re out.” “Ready, set, go.” “Ready, aim, fire.” “Lights, camera, action.” “And a one… and a two, and a three…”

As a species, we seem to love threes.

What this three thing comes from, I can’t say. Personally I suspect it’s cosmic. Really. Let’s face it: the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone… Father, Mother, Son… Father, Son, Holy Mother… Father, Son, Holy Ghost, three Fates, three Furies, three Sybils, three Wise Men, three Graces, three witches…. All the spiritual heavyweights come in threes.

It’s also a basic principle of the Fairy Tale Structure. The three-brother structure, or three-sister structure, the three-task structure, three activities, three key questions, three fairy godmothers, three supernatural helpers, three wishes, three magical gifts….

The id-ego-superego structure is a basic principle of Freudian psychology….

Think about it.

- How many times have you seen a movie or read a book in which you see a character attempt things three times… fail the first two times, and then succeed on the third try?

- How many times have you seen a character cluster of three?

- How many times have you seen the three-in-a-row pattern of a joke?

It’s a rule of advertising, of rhetoric, of politics: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” “Faith, hope and charity.” “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Location, location, location.”

Call it religion, call it astrology, call it numerology… however, whyever - this pattern of three is somehow intrinsically satisfying to us as human beings.

It’s often this pattern: Same, Same, Different. One is the set up, Two establishes the pattern, Three breaks the pattern with a twist.

In the Three-Brother or Three-Sister Structure, it’s Fail, Fail, Succeed. In The Godfather we see older brothers Sonny and Fredo are not up to the task of running the Corleone family, but unlikely youngest brother Michael is. In Jaws, we see scientist Hooper and ship’s captain Quint go up against the shark and fail, but in the climax, very unlikely Sheriff Brody actually kills the beast. In Cinderella, the two eldest stepsisters fail utterly with the Prince, then youngest stepsister Cinderella wins the crown. Sorry, I mean prince.

Think about character names: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid. Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether. Do you see that change in rhythm? Same, same, different. Serious, serious, joke.

So it is essential for you, writers, to be aware of the existence of the Rule Of Three so you can start being alert to its use in storytelling. You will find it in act structure, in dialogue, in character clusters, in critical events – it is rampant, ubiquitous, and shamelessly used in storytelling of every genre.

The ancient Greeks had it down, and named it, of course, as was their wont: in rhetoric it was called a Tricolon, a sentence with three parallel words or phrases. I’m not going to test anyone on this, but I think it’s important to understand how very long this rhythm has been in use (we’re talking 400 BC, if not earlier!). The Greeks delineated two types of tricolon: the ascending tricolon (tricolon crescens) and the descending tricolon (tricolon diminuens). In the ascending tricolon, the words increase with each pause; and in descending tricolon, the words lessen in length after every break.

Are your eyes glazing over? Well, take another look at these examples:

Ascending Tricolon
: Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.
Descending Tricolon: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid.

I don’t know about you, but that to me is fascinating. I can’t tell you that J.K. Rowling designed those character names consciously as a descending tricolon – but a descending tricolon is what that is, there, and I’d say it’s done pretty well for her. My point is: why on earth would anyone not want to at least be aware of a rhythm which has worked on audiences for thousands of years?

Start looking for threes in the movies and TV you watch and the books you read (and the commercials, and the political speeches, and the news articles…). You will be staggered at how often this principle is applied in storytelling – and in life.

You know the question - what are some examples you've noticed of the Rule Of Three?

- Alex


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Jenny Maloney said...

You may have been worried about how define this "Rule of Three" but I think this post is a very good breakdown of the pattern that appears throughout literature. Thanks for going for it!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Jenny, I appreciate that! It's those "I know it when I see it" ideas that make me crazy, but yeah, sometimes you do just have to bash through it.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a perfect number for a band of characters! If you have an even number of characters, then they can start "pairing off." With an odd number of characters, the interactions between them get more interesting because pairing off is impossible. Five can be a rather large group. You can't keep track of four other people all the time.

A group of three is still a small enough number that it remains intimate without pairing off and separating them.

That is just how I see it. :-)

Efi Loo Publishing said...

Great post Alex!

Before pursuing my writing career I was a successful Interior Designer. One of the key secrets to interior design is the pattern of three. Anything from flower arrangements, pattern designs to color schemes.

Having experienced this first hand it also holds true in death. It is most apparent when famous people die because they are followed by more people.

I am with you I believe it to be cosmic and it somehow brings balance to the universe, life and spirit.

The Words Crafter said...

Wow, thanks for this!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anon, you're right, a triangle (or iterations) just naturally creates conflict.

TK - same in film composition! I guess all design. Weird, isn't it?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're welcome, Words!

Mary said...

Thank you for giving this rule of three a name = Tricolon.
I've been teaching it as a "Magic 3" in 7th grade language arts to show parallelism.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mary, that's great that you're teaching it in 7th grade! I didn't learn about it until college, although as soon as I heard it it made perfect sense. We live with it, after all.

Sassy Molassy said...

But...McGonagall has four syllables, and Dumbledore has three.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

But the punchline is Hagrid, a clear twist from the first two names.

At least, I think so!

Anonymous said...

Also, I believe TvTropes has a crime trope called Murder, Arson and Jaywalking.

Mark Boss said...

I read your post today and thought back to a few nights ago when I caught about an hour of the Matrix. Lots of threes there.

Trinity's name. And the triangle of good guys--Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. And the three evil agents, with Agent Smith in the lead. And probably many more examples.

It's funny, but the novel I'm working on right now has a trio of characters together on an adventure. I think you're onto something with your 3 theory.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Darkword, that would definitely be an ascending tricolon, but I'm not sure I get it as a trope!

Will have to check it out to see what they mean.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mark, it's definitely not MY three theory! I'm just trying to point out the long history and multitudes of uses.

Matrix is a great one for threes, especially the character clusters:

billie said...

I think it's interesting too that many of us have three names - first/middle/last.

And in psychology, there is a term called triangulation. Often in unstable relationships or during times of stress in a relationship, a third person will be drawn in to unconsciously stabilize the situation - although this ends up a lot of times being dysfunctional. But even in relationship, we seek that magical number three.

laughingwolf said...

works like a charm in conspiracy, and other 'cells', too, alex... one gets 'caught', can only be forced to 'squeal' on two others, since only two are known, not the whole 'body'....

Limor Shiponi said...

Hi Alex, the rule of three is about completing a movement through the minimum required reference points: woman, man, child; thought, thought, decision; top, bottom, somewhere; it is also about tension that can be solved and built to tension again – constant movement, life.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Limor! It's interesting that you virtually have to use examples to explain it, isn't it?