Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Writing Fiction - The Rule of Three


In Britain, the middle hand is very rude. Except when Churchill does it. Then it isn’t. For some reason.

Image © arztsamui

It’s been suggested that, because humans are wired to look for patterns, and because three is the minimum number of anything required to form a pattern, we naturally find structures of three particularly satisfying.

They’re short. They’re punchy. They’re memorable.

This is why narratives are often comprised of three acts, why fairy tales often include groups of three talking animals, and why characters often succeed at something on the third attempt.

This structure is now so ingrained in the popular subconscious that people expect things to come in threes, even if they’re not actively aware of it. They’ll become confused and agitated, like lambs at a bestiality rave, if a character takes four attempts to succeed at a task, or if the story unexpectedly concludes at the end of the second act.

As writers, we need to use this information to our advantage. I wouldn’t recommend making every element of your story crop up in threes, because that would make it surreal and predictable (an unlikely combination, and certainly not a good one); just be aware of it.

Anything particularly significant should probably have a whiff of ‘threeness’ about it. Perhaps the hero only succeeds in killing the Dark Lord on their third encounter. Perhaps he (yes, fine – or ‘she’) must overcome three distinct barriers to reach the Dark Lord. Or perhaps the Dark Lord can only be killed by destroying the three component parts of his consciousness.

People expect it, like it, and remember it.

That said, you can also use your writerly knowledge of the ‘rule of three’ to work against the reader’s expectations, from time to time. Unexpectedly kill the Dark Lord on the second encounter, only for the reader to later discover that he’s transferred his dying essence into the hero’s mind, and must be battled one more time inside the hero’s own psyche.

Why not check your manuscript to see whether you’re working with the rule of three, or against it. I can’t honestly say it’s something I’ve had at the forefront of my mind whilst writing Gwillum Hobnail, so I’ll be looking out for it (or it’s absence) myself as I work on the second draft.

Do you use the rule of three? How closely do you follow it? Is it important, or just a load of old guff? Add a comment below, or e-mail pithytitle@live.co.uk


  1. I talked to an editor this weekend at a conference and she mentioned using the rule of three in my manuscript.

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