The Rule of Three: Short-Range
The Rule of Three refers to the natural inclination of the human brain to group things into threes: we view age as young, middle-aged and old; we think of goals as short, mid, and long-term; and we measure the world in three dimensions. Our minds are hard-wired to pick three examples of things as one would be too definitive and two would be a direct comparison, but three is enough choice to show variation. This often occurs within writing, and this essay will be looking at the Rule of Three in a short-range aspect.
Whilst it is referred to as a rule, the Rule of Three is not something which writers need to follow at all. It naturally happens within writing, and as such having an understanding of it can improve your ability to both use it when necessary, and disregard it when desired.
When we measure time in the short-term we use seconds, minutes and hours. In the same way, when we write we use words, sentences and paragraphs, and these will be three elements of focus.
Words are often put together in triplets; whether as individuals or small groups. On some occasions, this will be two nouns and a verb:
Rosemary unhooked her stockings.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Here, the three elements are Rosemary, her stockings, and her action of unhooking them.
Another form that regularly appears is a noun and two adjectives:
A layer of something thick and clear is collecting on top of the tallow in the fridge.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
There are two sets of triplets here. The first is the something that is thick and clear. The second are the three nouns which point out that the something in question is on top of the tallow in the fridge.
When describing items, actions, places, people, or emotions, writers tend to use three descriptors, either as words or phrases:
Was it to become a monstrous and loathsome thing, to be hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from the sunlight that had so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of its hair?
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This sentence contains three sub-clauses, each of which is a triplet in its own right. The monstrous loathsome thing is the first, hidden in a locked room is the second, and shut out from sunlight that had touched its hair the third. The description of the sunlight touching its hair is again split into three, as a sub-triplet.
Often sentences are separated into a three-step structure of clauses and sub-clauses, broken using punctuation such as commas, semi-colons and dashes, to build a series of layers.
The water was cold, the soap wouldn’t lather – it simply disintegrated into greasy shards – but all she could think about were the hours between now and the beginning of her next shift.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Less than three sections works well, but four or more stretches the mind’s ability to maintain the original point of the sentence. As such, even the longest sentences are usually limited to three main parts.
Similarly, dialogue is often broken into three: either one part speech and two parts action, or two parts speech and one part action.
‘I’d better be goin’,’ she said. ‘Us old people need our sleep, you know how it is.’
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
Increasing the scale slightly, sentences are often linked together in threes. On some occasions, a paragraph will consist of three sentences that state the who, what, where, how, and why.
He sat in the car borrowing yen and watching his fund’s numbers sink into the mist on several screens. Torval stood in the rain with arms folded. He was a lone figure in the street, facing a series of empty loading docks.
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
One some occasions the sentences will be split across multiple lines, or there will be further text within that one paragraph, however that does not prevent triplets from occurring within the sentences.
Paragraphs usually stick to one theme, however within that, as with breaking up sentences, it is difficult to follow more than three topics and so paragraphs will again adhere to the maximum of three points rule.
Unfortunately, the uproar awoke Mr. Jones, who sprang out of bed, making sure that there was a fox in the yard. He seized the gun which always stood in a corner of his bedroom, and let fly a charge of number 6 shot into the darkness. The pellets buried themselves in the wall of the barn and the meeting broke up hurriedly. Everyone fled to his own sleeping-place. The birds jumped on to their perches, the animals settled down in the straw, and the whole farm was asleep in a moment.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The above paragraph, although large, only covers three details: Mr. Jones being woken up, the gunshot, and the animals returning to their sleeping-places.
On a larger scale, paragraphs can work in sets of three to bring the reader through a certain point in the story. By using three paragraphs, a moment in time can begin, happen, and conclude effectively and concisely.
The list of examples that demonstrate the Rule of Three at a short-range level can go on: three out of five senses are enough to immerse a reader in a scene; three repeats of a phrase will embed it as a key point; three uses of a character’s name will be enough for other characters (and the reader) to remember them.
The Rule of Three is not a fixed and definitive rule you need to follow, but more a natural occurrence within writing. By being aware of it, you can play on it to create effect, or purposefully avoid it at times to build a sense of tension or unease.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.