On Writing: The Rule of Threes

“Little Rabbit Foo Foo, I’ll give you Three Chances to Change” (Little Rabbit Foo Foo)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots#The_Rule_of_Three

I’ve been thinking about this literary device/trend/trope/rule/archetype since reading Booker’s Seven Basic Plots – because it intrigues me how this is in no way really a ‘rule’ and yet seems to pop up everywhere despite that.

Three is after all:

  • The most unstable, stable shape (I honestly can’t work out how to explain this, you’ll probably either get what I mean or just move on from my crazy ramblings)
  • The number required for a LURVE triangle
  • Minimum number of things needed to form a pattern
  • Number of statements needed to form an argument
  • Not necessarily the only, but a very easy number to instantly count, and maintain in our short term memory
  • A very tidy number to use for plot-points, the literal goldilocks of numbers

Rather than get too deep into any form of archetypal metaspiritual stuff, I thought I would just expand on some of the above points:

Stability and Instability

OK so what I meant by this point is that three makes an ideal number of moving parts to create stability and instability in your story. For example, three countries at peace/war creates an ideal setup where several different dynamic scenarios can be played out, all 3 at war, 2 allied against 1, shifting alliances, tenuous peace between all. It’s not so much that you couldn’t have more countries and indeed many stories do have more factions in a conflict, its just that 3 countries is very dynamic balance. 2 v 2 is kinda boring and evenly matched, and so on.

That’s a very specific example, you can also have dynamics between characters (see next point) different institutions, different goals of the character (think of an MC having to balance family, work, and war).

The main point which is very hard to explain because its very intuitive, is that the dynamics of three moving parts has the potential of stability, but is prone towards instability all while being not overwhelming the working memory.

Love Triangles

There probably isn’t too much to say here, I know some people find this trope clichĂ© to the point of cringe, but the reality is the Rule of Threes very much backs up love triangles. Similar to the above thesis a love triangle works as a story trope because it defies easy resolution. I’ve read a couple of stories with other love shapes (gross) and unfortunately it tends to suck (grosser) the tension out of the situation because there is always a sense that things are going to work out.

Just a quick side note I’m not saying that stories where everyone gets matched up is bad, its just when a love triangle is a main plot tension, easy matching up is boring.

Patterns

This is an interesting one – scientifically a little dubious (need more data) the human brain is quite happy to see patterns and generally three data points is all that is needed. By pattern I meant things like: the protagonist is a jerk, or the villain is strongest in the land, or the love interest actually doesn’t like the MC whatsoever. Booker, in Seven Basic Plots, points out that in this use of ‘threes’ its actually a ‘four’ situation except the ‘fourth’ is the resolution to some story tension.

Now this isn’t saying that you need to do something three times to establish a plot point, rather its saying that three is a good number to use to establish your elements. whether its how many times the MC asks the love-interest out, attempts to defeat the Dark Lord, whatever.

Arguments?

Probably in terms of stories we’re talking about typical Three Act structures. Not much to say on this one just that sometimes stories can be broken down into premises such as: IF this (character), AND this (faces this tension), THEN this (resolution).

Three and only Three?

Really important that the ‘Rule’ of Threes really is not a rule at all, but more a very interesting literally quirk that probably has as much to do with our psychology of absorbing stories than a strong writing argument. Nonetheless I think its a really useful thing to consider especially when outlining and planning a story.

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