Things happen in threes. It’s part of our culture and so ingrained in our subconscious that we notice (if not seek out) patterns that fit this rule. Using it in our writing lets us tap into this understood principle and helps pique reader interest as they look for these patterns.
People also remember things in threes better. (Really, they’ve done studies) Think of famous speeches (Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), or clichéd ad copy (location location location). Even our stories are broken down into three acts. Three makes people pay attention, and we can use that to make them pay attention in our stories.
Using the Rule of Three
The principles are simple: It takes three things to establish a pattern, and there are several ways to use threes in a story. The rule of three works like this:
- That the first time someone sees something they merely see it.
- The second time they notice it, because it stands out now.
- The third time, they’re looking for it because you’ve established a pattern.
1. To build tension or foreshadow
Establishing patterns is a great foreshadowing technique. Tension builds when readers are expecting something and waiting eagerly for it to happen. This can happen over the course of one scene or the whole book. It starts with a brief glimpse of something that seems unimportant, but is seen again later with a little more importance, and finally revealed in a bigger way.
The movie Antman has a fantastic example of this (minor spoilers). Early on in the movie, one character tosses a keychain with a toy tank on it into a bowl to get through security. Later, the hero sees the keys and tank when he's robbing that character's house. Finally, the toy tank becomes pivotal when it's the solution to the good guys escaping the bad guys in the climax. It works because we've seen the tank all along, we know the backstory of the character who has the tank keychain, so when the unexpected happens, it feels inevitable and not out of the blue. The clues were there the entire time for us to guess the truth (and some people did, which let them anticipate the big reveal of that fun secret).
It doesn't have to be three of the exact thing either. You could have a the creak in the night, followed by a thump, followed by a guy in the ski mask jumping out at--they're all spooky things that build upon on another.
(Here's more on creating tension in your novel)
2. To make readers remember
Things mentioned three times get remembered. This can be tricky since repetition can be bad, so make sure to slip it in where it feels natural. A protagonist simply saying the same thing again stands out (but not in the good way), but the protagonist going over the plan, forgetting one thing, and having a friend remind them usually feels natural. It also draws attention to that second thing, thus making the reader notice it even more. Then later when the protagonist is actively about to do that thing, readers might think about it one last time, which puts that detail right in their minds where you want it. (This is a good way to keep the stakes, goals, and motivations in your reader’s mind)
3. To surprise
Patterns that don’t go where we expect them to surprise us. This is the way many jokes work: they set up a pattern, then throw something unexpected in for the third item and shock us.
How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.We can lead readers in one direction, then hit them sideways, be it with humor, drama, or even pathos. It works on a larger scale with scenes, and doesn’t have to be a single line. Two scenes set up the pattern, then third starts off to satisfy that pattern, then wham! It changes direction and offers a surprise.
(Here's more on keeping readers hooked through story revelations)
Three really is a magic number. It works on a line by line basis or in a macro structure format. It allows for lovely sentence rhythm, memorable prose, and a way to add layers to flat scenes. Next time you’re stuck in a scene, try looking at what patterns you’ve created and how you can use those to get the story moving again.
Do you use the rule of three?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound