Rule of three (writing)

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The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears uses the rule of three extensively, with the protagonist examining three sets of three items in a house, finding only the third of each set to be satisfactory

The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of entities such as events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers. The audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.[1][2]

Slogans, film titles, and a variety of other things have been structured in threes, a tradition that grew out of oral storytelling[3] and continues in narrative fiction. Examples include the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Musketeers. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.


The rule of three can refer to a collection of three words, phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs/stanzas, chapters/sections of writing and even whole books.[2][4] The three elements together are known as a triad.[5] The technique is used not just in prose, but also in poetry, oral storytelling, films, and advertising. In photography, the rule of thirds produces a similar effect by dividing an image into three vertically and horizontally.[6]

A tricolon is a more specific use of the rule of three where three words or phrases are equal in length and grammatical form.[7]

A hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a single central idea.[5] As a slogan or motto, this is known as a tripartite motto.[8]

Slogans and catchphrases[edit]

Many advertising campaigns and public information slogans use the technique to create a catchy, memorable way of displaying information. In marketing theory, American advertising and sales pioneer E. St. Elmo Lewis laid out his three chief copywriting principles, which he felt were crucial for effective advertising:

The mission of an advertisement is to attract a reader so that he will look at the advertisement and start to read it; then to interest him, so that he will continue to read it; then to convince him, so that when he has read it he will believe it. If an advertisement contains these three qualities of success, it is a successful advertisement.[9]

Better-known examples include:


In comedy, the rule of three is also called a comic triple[15] and is one of the many comedic devices regularly used by humorists, writers, and comedians. The third element of the triple is often used to create an effect of surprise with the audience,[15] and is frequently the punch line of the joke itself. For instance, jokes might feature three stereotyped individuals—such as an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman; or a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead—where the surprise or punch line of the joke comes from the third character.

The comedic rule of three is often paired with quick timing, ensuring that viewers have less time to catch on to the pattern before the punch line hits. As a whole, the comedic rule of threes relies on setting up a pattern of two items and then subverting viewer expectations by breaking that pattern with the third item. One particularly notable example comes from The Dick Van Dyke Show – "Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?"[16]

Just like most comedic writing, the rule of threes in comedy relies on building tension to a comedic release. In the case of the rule of threes, tension is built with the first two items in the pattern and then released with the final item, which should be the funniest of the three. Most triples are short in length, often only two or three sentences, but the rule can also be implemented effectively at longer length as long as base formula is still followed.[17]

Storytelling and folklore[edit]

In storytelling, authors often create triplets or structures in three parts. In the rule's simplest form, this is merely beginning, middle, and end, as expressed in Aristotle's Poetics.

Snow White receives three visits from her wicked stepmother.

Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folk Tale, concluded that any of the elements in a folktale could be negated twice so that it would repeat thrice.[18] 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 usually the third, although fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form. A small sample of the latter 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 searching for her lost husband; when she finds where he is held 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.
  • 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 he able to keep the woman who springs out of it.


Rhetoric and public speaking[edit]

French: Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet. Vin tonique au quinquina.
Cassandre's advertisement for Dubonnet aperitif uses wordplay and a progression of three items.

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,[19] gives 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 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".[20] Conversely, the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace inveighed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural address.[21]

The appeal of the three-fold pattern is also illustrated by the transformation of Winston Churchill's reference to "blood, toil, tears and sweat" (echoing Giuseppe Garibaldi and Theodore Roosevelt) in its popular recollection to "blood, sweat and tears".[22][23]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b "Writing: The power of three". 9 June 2009. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  3. ^ "Toastmasters, November 2013". Toastmaster. p. 17.
  4. ^ Craige, Alex (9 November 2013). "Do You Use The Rhetorical "Rule of Three"?". At Counsel Table. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  5. ^ a b "How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches". 28 May 2009. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  6. ^ "Rule of Thirds – Digital Photography School". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  7. ^ "One, Two, Three: What Is a Tricolon?". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  8. ^ Ltd., Blair. "ODLT dictionary definition of Tripartite motto". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  9. ^ Bryant, Donnie (2016). "Is AIDA Outdated As A Marketing Process? (Part II)". Rhino Daily. Archived from the original on 22 April 2019. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  10. ^ "Slogan of the French Republic". Archived from the original on 2015-05-12. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  11. ^ Sweney, Mark (28 February 2008). "Mars revives 'Work, rest, play' slogan with ad featuring bell-ringing monks". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  12. ^ "Stop, Look and Listen – Child Road Safety Game – Tales of the Road". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  13. ^ "Crossing Ahead, Stop, Look And Listen". Archived from the original on 2015-12-11. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  14. ^ " Registration". Archived from the original on 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  15. ^ a b "Critique Circle Online Writing Workshlolop The CC Blog". Critique Circle. Retrieved 2018-12-07.
  16. ^ "Using The Rule Of 3 To Elevate Your Presentations". 2021-10-13.
  17. ^ Henshey, Chelsea (2016-02-11). "Comedy Writing Secrets: Triple the Funny". Writer's Digest. Retrieved 2018-12-07.
  18. ^ Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968, p. 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  19. ^ Atkinson, J. Maxwell. Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics. London: Methuen, 1984. ISBN 0-416-37690-8
  20. ^ "Nonviolence and Racial Justice" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  21. ^ Governor George Wallace of Alabama. "Inaugural Address (1963) The "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever" Speech" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  22. ^ "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  23. ^ "Presentation Skills 3. The Rule of Three". Retrieved 2015-06-01.