The Rule of Three is one of the oldest writing techniques–it turns up in old stories over and over again. The Rule of Three states that events should happen in groups of three. These events should follow this pattern: establish conflict, build conflict, resolve conflict. Or they can follow this pattern: similar, similar, different.
Consider “The Three Little Pigs.” The first little pig builds a house of straw and the wolf knocks it down (establish conflict). The second little pig builds a house of wood and the wolf knocks it down (build conflict). The third little pig–spoiler alert!–builds a house of brick and it’s too strong for the wolf to break down (resolve conflict). This one also follows the “similar, similar, different” pattern.
You’ll see the same pattern in many other fairy tales, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Billy Goats Gruff.
The cool thing about the Rule of Three is that you can use it at a macro level (the deep structure of the story) or at a micro level, such as in individual sentences. At a macro level, the Rule of Three is behind Three Act Structure, which is the basis of many Hollywood films and quite a few novels.
You can also use it within individual scenes or subplots. The novella I’m working on now, about a pair of archers, has a Rule of Three situation in it. In one scene, the archers discover they are being followed, and they manage to lose the tail (create conflict). In a later scene, they discover they are being followed again, and attempt to confront the tail, but he disappears (build conflict). In the third scene, they encounter the tail face to face (resolve conflict). This is also a case of “similar, similar, different.”
If you ever receive feedback on your novel that something seemed to come out of the blue, wasn’t set up enough, didn’t feel “earned,” you probably have a situation where the Rule of Three would help. You probably need to go back and add two incidents setting up your third incident.
Here’s an example of using the Rule of Three at the sentence level: “She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was everything he couldn’t have.” It’s trite, but you can see the pattern: similar, similar, different. All sentences have the same pattern “she was X,” but the first two sentences express positive sentiments and the third expresses conflict.
Used properly, the Rule of Three can intensify your conflicts and help to hook the reader. Consider the archer novella and imagine you’ve just read the scene where they were being followed and lost the tail. You know the author is not going to just leave it at that. You know there is going to be another encounter with the person following them. You now have an expectation of upcoming conflict.
Because the Rule of Three creates a reader expectation, there are situations where you want to avoid using it, such as when you want something to be a surprise. For example, I have a situation in an upcoming book–I am going to have to be really vague here so that I don’t spoil it–where a character solves a problem, within the first few chapters of the book, in an unconventional way. Later he’s going to use that unconventional method to solve a much more important problem near the end of the book. But I don’t want to telegraph that to the reader. Therefore I avoid having him use that unconventional technique a second time in the middle of the book, because if I do, I’ll be telegraphing to the reader that it’s going to happen a third time.
Look for the use of Rule of Three as you read fiction–I bet you’ll find it all over the place. If you find any particularly good examples, feel free to share them in the comments. I’m considering writing a longer and more detailed article on this subject.