Rule of three (writing)
The rule of Three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans ("Go, fight, win!") to films, many things are structured in threes. Examples include The Three Stooges, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.
The Latin phrase, "omne trium perfectum" (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.
In comedy, it is also called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people's minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the 3rd element.
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In storytelling in general, authors often create triplets or structures in three parts. In its simplest form, this is merely beginning, middle, and end, from Aristotle's Poetics. Syd Field wrote a popular handbook of screenwriting, in which he touted the advantages of three act structure over the more traditional five act structure used by William Shakespeare and many other famous play-writers.
Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folk Tale, concluded that any of the elements in a folk tale could be negated twice, so that it would repeat thrice. This is common not only in the Russian tales he studied, but throughout folk tales and fairy tales—most commonly, perhaps, in that the youngest son is often the third, but fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form, a small sample of which includes:
- Rumpelstiltskin spins thrice for the heroine and lets her guess his name thrice over a period of three days.
- In East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the heroine receives three gifts while she is searching for her lost husband; when she finds where he is prisoner, she must use them to thrice bribe her way to the hero (the first two times she was unable to tell her story because he lay in a drugged sleep).
- In Brother and Sister, Brother is transformed into a deer when he drinks from the third stream that their wicked stepmother enchanted, and when Sister is killed by the same stepmother, she visits her child's room thrice, being caught and restored the third time.
- The hero used magical horses to climb thrice to The Princess on the Glass Hill.
- In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, a woman says she will bear the king three marvelous children; when they reappear, their envious aunts attempt to kill them by sending them on three quests, after the three marvelous things of the title.
- In The Silent Princess, a prince breaks a peasant woman's pitcher thrice, and is cursed; when he finds the title princess, he must persuade her to speak thrice.
- In The Love for Three Oranges, the hero picks three magical oranges, and only with the third is able to keep the woman who springs out of it.
In many tales, three tasks must be performed to reach a certain goal.
- In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Marley's Ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge he will receive visits from three spirits: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to which Scrooge says, "Spirit, I fear you most of all."
Rhetoric and public speaking
The use of a series of three elements is also a well-known feature of public oratory. Max Atkinson, in his book on oratory entitled Our Masters' Voices gives interesting examples of how public speakers use three-part phrases to generate what he calls 'claptraps', evoking audience applause.
Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist and preacher was also known for his uses of tripling and the rule of three throughout his many influential speeches. For example, the speech "Non-Violence and Racial Justice" contained a binary opposition made up of the rule of three: "insult, injustice and exploitation," followed a few lines later by "justice, good will and brotherhood." Conversely, segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace inveighed: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural address.
The appeal of the three-fold pattern is illustrated by the transformation of Winston Churchill's reference to "blood, toil, tears and sweat" (echoing Garibaldi and Theodore Roosevelt) in popular recollection to "blood, sweat and tears."
- Hendiatris (or tripartite motto)
- The Three Classic Laws of thought
- Triple deity
- Rule of thirds; a similar concept applied to visual art