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The Rule of Threes | Writing 101

With regards to writing, we've spoken at length now about Character Arcs, Plot, and Theme, and the intersections between those concepts. Now let's dig down into a smaller-scale concept that still affects the entire narrative and how it's executed.

In a weird way, "story" or "narrative" can be thought of as simply "conveying information to the viewer." That's all it is, when it comes down to it. In other sections we've talked about high-minded concepts like conveying theme, but here it's just simply: how do we best convey information to a human?

Humans learn through pattern recognition. That's one of the few things you're learn in your writing journey that is not up for debate, it is an incontrovertible fact. It's why we're taught things at a young age and then they're reinforced as we get older, so that hopefully by the time we branch out on our own, we'll know them.

In storytelling, there's a balance between being effective and being efficient. To be effective in telling your story, we have to show patterns so that the reader can have pattern recognition. But you want to be efficient as well: you don't want to bore the reader by having the same thing happen every scene. So the goal then is to show events happening enough that the reader's pattern recognition kicks in, but not so often that it becomes tedious.

That is a very long-winded way to say: three times is the answer. It is called the "Rule of Threes."

Three is the bare minimum amount of items that can be presented to a human in order for them to recognize a pattern. Once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

Imagine a white sheet of paper. Place a single dot on it, that's not a pattern, that's just a dot. Imagine we place a second dot. Now we can draw a line between these two, but it's still not a pattern, it's a line, and there's only the one way to connect them. Only at three does it form a shape, a triangle, or a V, or any number of ways you can connect them. Only at three is there a pattern. Add a fourth you can make a square, a fifth you can make a pentagon, a sixth a hexagon. And so on, and so on, but three is the bare minimum. You can have more than three, but if you're also trying to be efficient, you have only three.

Once you start looking for "Rule of Threes" in the world, you'll see it everywhere. In how we communicate, in how we live our lives. They say "Death comes in threes." Why do we say that? Because we only notice it as a pattern when the third one hits. Serial Killers are only classified as such when they take a third victim: why? Because before then there wasn't enough information for police to notice a pattern. In religion, how long was Christ dead before he rose again? Three days. How many aspects to the Christian God are there? Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Three. We describe stories as being beginning, middle and end: three. We describe life as child, adult, and elderly: three. We describe time as Past, Present, and Future: three.

Even in speech, we tend to give three examples. When you're in school and writing an essay, your teacher tells you to write an introduction, then three supporting paragraphs, then a conclusion. Even in my sentences above: "Add a fourth you can make a square, a fifth you can make a pentagon, a sixth a hexagon." I gave three examples of shapes you can make. Why three? Why not stop at square? Why not go on to heptagon?

And just then, again. "Why three? Why not stop at square? Why not go on to heptagon?" I made that point with three questions. Why did I do that? Why do we do that? Isn't that wild?

We experience the world in groups of three.

So what that means when you're storytelling, in order to convey to the reader what is important in your story, anything of import must happen three times. Likely once at the beginning, once in the middle, and once at the end, but not always. Sometimes things will happen three times in the one scene, then never again, the thing is confined to that one part of the story.

In storytelling language, we call this Setup, Remind, and Payoff.

And weirdly, there's two ways to use it: one that involves three times, one that involved four. I know that's weird, that you can obey Rule of Three's with something happening four times, but it's true.

Basically the difference comes down to: do you do something three times, establishing a pattern, then surprise the reader on the fourth? Or, do you do it twice, then surprise them on the third? And which you do is really just dictated by if three is enough or if it needs the fourth.

Example: Let's say you're writing a scary screenplay, where a monster is going to jump out of a closet. Spooky! But if you just do it, it doesn't really work. It's not scary in and of itself, it's scary because we didn't expect a monster to be there. So, you have to show the closet being opened with no trouble to set the pattern that the reader can trust the closet, then shock them.

Now, do you show the closet twice and scare them on the third time opening it? Or do you show the closet three times, establishing a pattern of it being safe, then scare them on the fourth? That's up to you, and you might want to play with both to find which is more effective for readers. There's no firm rule on that, it's a story-to-story thing.

Another Example: Let's say that at the end of your big action climax of the story, you want the good guy to shoot the bad guy with a gun. If you just have that happen with no Setup, the readers / viewers will cry foul. "Where did that gun come from?" "Oh so the gun just teleported in?" "Why is this writer such a hack?"

Even if there's a reasonable explanation for the character to have a gun, like say, being a police officer, viewers still want it to be Set Up to be effective. So if you want that scene at the end with the Good Guy shooting the Baddie, you have to show the gun or reference the gun at least twice previous. That's why in Die Hard, when they wanted to end on Sgt. Powell killing the bad guy, they have to go back and make a story where he doesn't draw his gun because he once shot a kid on the job in error. And that Setup makes the Payoff even more memorable.

If this sounds familiar, it's because another common name for this is Chekov's Gun, the idea that if you show a gun in the first act, if should have gone off in the third act. This goes to efficiency, like we talked about. Chekov believed that not only should you Setup everything in Rule of Threes, but that you should only Set Up things that you plan on Paying Off. That there shouldn't be any extra stuff cluttering up your narrative, only the things that are setup, reminded, or paying off.

This is where some writers miss the mark in their drafts. They have all these ideas of what should go into their book, and they sit and write them all down, and then they run out of ideas and the darn book is only 20,000 words long. And they don't know what's wrong.

What's wrong is, you only used each thing once. That's actually a 60,000 word novel, once you've used each of those things three times and properly setup, reminded, and paid off each aspect of your tale.


Like this and what more of it? I teach interactive online classes over Zoom, three-four times a year for 10 weeks. Take your writing to the next level! Click the link for more information or to contact me.


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