Rule of three (writing)
The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of 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. It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.
Slogans, film titles and a variety of other things have been structured in threes, a tradition that grew out of oral storytelling. Examples include the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Three Musketeers. 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.
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. The three elements together are known as a triad. The technique may be used not just in prose but 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.
A tricolon is a more specific use of the rule of three where three words or phrases are equal in length and grammatical form.
A hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a single central idea. As a slogan or motto, this is known as a tripartite motto.
Slogans and catchphrases
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 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.
Better-known examples include:
- Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – Rights outlined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence
- Liberté, égalité, fraternité – The slogan of the French Republic predating 1790
- A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play – Mars advertising slogan since 1959
- Stop, Look and Listen – A public road and level crossing safety slogan
- Stop, Drop and Roll – A fire safety slogan listing the steps to take if one's clothing has caught fire
- Faster, Higher, Stronger – The Olympic motto; a translation of the Latin Citius, Altius, Fortius
- Veni, vidi, vici – A triad translated from Latin as "I came, I saw, I conquered", popularly attributed to Julius Caesar of Rome.
- Slip-Slop-Slap – Australian sun protection (anti-skin-cancer) campaign.
In comedy, it is also called a comic triple, 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, 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?".
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.
In storytelling, 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 playwrights.
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. 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.
- 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."
- In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye must give his three eldest daughters away, one after another. Each match progressively challenges his faith, as represented by a monologue in which he argues with himself using the phrase "on the other hand" to play the devil's advocate and convince himself to side with his daughters. This is subverted with the youngest daughter who wishes to marry a Gentile, for which Tevye concludes that "No, there is no other hand."
- In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Mark Antony starts his speech by using the rule of three: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, to which the commoners start to listen.
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 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 also 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". Similarly, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan describes the importance of community, without which life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". This has been reduced to the commonly heard triad "nasty, brutish and short".
A common feature of legal documents which give property or grant rights as drafted by legal professionals perpetuates old English practice in which the rule of three echoes the intended Act by the varying restatement of the act in triplicate. For example, in a Will or Trust instrument the phrase "I give, devise and bequeath ..."
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