Monday, May 16, 2016

One, Two Three, Notice Me: The Rule of Three (And How it Helps Our Writing)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 clich├ęd 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?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Ooo, nice thought. I'm writing a novelette right now that has 2 threads that need to be foreshadowed and tied together, so I'll have to keep this in mind.

  2. THANKS! I hadn't thought about the threes. I'll look for it more in my writing.

  3. I love this. Great suggestions for working the hints in without being blatant.

  4. Carradee: Good luck!

    Taffy: Three is useful in so many ways. You'll find it helps a lot.

    Solvang: I do love the subtleties in writing. More fun than the blatant stuff ;)

  5. I'm so glad I read this as this is perfectly timed for my own revisions of my writing. I'm going back to set some scenes up and will definitely keep this fantastic advice in mind.

  6. SF Roney: Oh good! I hope it works well for you.

  7. Great summary! I use the "rule of three" all the time when writing. It's a habit, I never really noticed it until I looked for it.

  8. Allison: I've found so many things like that since I started the blog. It makes me pay more attention to what I do.

  9. This is good stuff. I've heard the rule of three long ago, but these examples really brings it to life. Thank You!

  10. Great overview, well explained!
    I collected many examples of the pattern in our real world and designed a creative mind map with them. You are welcome to have a look at it on

  11. This reminds me of something we use to say when I was a kid about hiking and never being the third in line. First person wakes the snake. Second makes him mad. Third gets bitten. Ah youth!

  12. Rule of three is a technique in stand-up comedy as well. One - wait for it - kaboom! Good rule to know!

    1. Cool, I didn't know that, but it makes sense.

  13. I think threes work particularly well in description - especially if, as you say, the third item is surprising or the one with the important memory or thought attached.

    1. I agree. and it does flow off the fingers easily in threes. At least for me when I'm describing things.

  14. This is great for a subplot I'm working on as part of a series.
    Each time they hug, my character notices the faintest of an alluring fragrance her new boyfriend wears. But every time she starts to ask him what it is, something happens & the opportunity is lost.
    I don't want this to happen so many times, the reader will scream "ask him already!" Just enough to raise curiosity, so 3 times seems about right. This funny little detail doesn't really affect the story in a major way. Only the ladies.
    But I painted myself in a corner. I have no clue what that amazing fragrance is or where it's from (I wish I did). Should I just leave that as an open-ended mystery & focus on the main story? Drop it? Why? Thanks ahead for your input.

    1. Oh no! If you mention it more than once (especially if it's three times) then yes, you have to follow through. Your readers will be expecting it. But if you just mention it once, maybe twice, you might be able to leave it be.

  15. Hum. Sort of. A sparrow shows up in an early chapter, then again later on and drops a silver leaf. I comes again as the story is ending. Now that this article has pointed this out ... yes it's three, but what to do with it?

    All I've got is some vague thing about it bring a transformed person trying to help. xP Thank you for this i'd almost forgotten about that bird. Now to go figure out what to do about it.

  16. Story changed again. What to do with that sparrow ..