Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Rule of Three - Terry Odell

This post first ran on Tuesday, November 15, 2011.

Have you ever noticed the rhythm of an author's writing?

There's something about the "rule of three" that seems ingrained in us as human beings, from the Three Little Pigs, the Three Stooges, to the Third Time's the Charm. (Did you notice the use of three examples?)

When writing, giving three examples of things seems to make the narrative flow better. We'll often list three things a character does or says. Somehow, it doesn't feel as "right" with more or less. The three-act structure is the basis for plays and writing books.

Repetition helps readers remember. Things presented in threes just seem to stick with us: Faith, Hope. and Charity. Winken, Blinken, and Nod. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Stop, Look and Listen. Stop, Drop and Roll. How many more can you name? Dozens I'm sure.

Here are some examples of using the rule of three in writing fiction:

He took off his boots, sank onto the couch and stretched his legs out in front of him.

He flopped down beside her, drew her close and was out.

Jungle noises filled Dalton’s ears. Monkeys chattered, birds sang, insects buzzed.

At the top of the stairs, a pair of double doors stood open. Classical music drifted down. Two men in black trousers, white shirts and red jackets greeted guests.

Following the flashlight’s narrow beam, she rushed toward the voice, stopping two paces into the room.

Repetition shows you meant it. If you repeat a word twice in a paragraph or a short passage, there's a "clunk" or "echo" effect. However, using the word three times is effectively telling the reader you meant to repeat the word.

As a matter of fact, the US Marines found that grouping things in threes helped people remember training, which in turn, helped keep them alive. They experimented with a rule of four, and retention and effectiveness plummeted.

However, as with anything else, overuse of any pattern can get monotonous. So go back over your manuscript and see if you've got too many things happening in threes.

And, after finding out that I'm finally getting rights back to two of my earlier books, I've begun working on a third. Readers seem to like threes—hence the popularity of trilogies.


Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists. To see all her books, visit her Web site. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Posted by Maryann Miller who loves the rhythm of words and writing.

30 comments :

  1. Very interesting. I never thought of "three" before. Funny how you take three for granted. And yes, I noticed three rearing its head in my writing. Great post.

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  2. Very interesting, never thought of that.

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  3. Maggie-it's nice to find "good" surprises when we look at our writing.

    PL - glad to give you something to think about.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  4. Enjoyed your article, Terry. I've often thought of comedy using the rule of three -- the first two repetitions are the setup, and the third is the twist/surprise.

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  5. How clever of you to think of the rule of three--and how true! Enjoyed your observations.

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  6. Great topic, Terry. I use that technique a lot, but never thought of it as a "rule of three." Great post. Now I'm off to double-check I haven't over-used this sort of writing. :)

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  7. Colleen - good example.

    Jacqueline - I hardly "invented" the rule. It's been around forever. But glad you enjoyed the post.

    Joya - maybe you should "triple check!" :-)

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  8. What an insightful posting Terry. I really, really, really enjoyed it.

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  9. I use the rule of three though never thought of it that way-thanks for making me aware-and you bet I'll use it more wisely now. Marian

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  10. Marian - once we're aware of things--anythings--in our writing, we can improve our craft. The problems arise when we don't know we don't know something.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  11. Wow! I'm off to check the rule of three now and see if, or when, I tend to use it. Very intriguing, Terry, thank you!

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  12. It has been a long time since I've thought about it but yes, threes do work. Screenplays are a three act structure.

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  13. Nancy - I'll bet you have. I think it's part of our hard-wiring.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  14. Georgie - And we're told to structure our novels that same way (although I don't pay that much attention to "acts" when I'm writing)

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  15. Nice little pointer, Terry, and something that I think many writers do without even thinking about it. But please, please, please (thrice please), use the "serial comma" in your examples, an issue well covered in an earlier blog. For example, "He took off his boots, sank onto the couch, and stretched his legs out in front of him." It makes it easier for the fast reader to parse at first glance.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

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  16. Larry - thanks, although several of the editors I've worked with take out my final commas. My problem is using them when I think there might be a problem parsing, and trying to be consistent.

    There was a whole brouhaha about the death of the "Oxford Comma" not long ago. I think this is another case of the rule being 'there is no rule.' At least not one that's followed by everyone.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  17. Terry interesting concept. Margie Lawson teaches in her classes cadence and repetition to create a smooth read. Thanks for the helpful post today.

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  18. Kathy, yes that repetition offers a definite cadence. I also think there's a grammatical term for the 'rule of three' but for the life of me, I can't remember it.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  19. There are three reasons I liked this post; it was informative, well written, and ... uh ... I can't remember the third.

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  20. Christopher - I'm sure it'll come to you eventually... Thanks!

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  21. Everyone knows three's a charm!

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  22. I've always like the rule of three and hate that modern grammar took off that last comma, which make it seem like the last two things go together and jars the sentence.

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  23. Great examples. I can see where the rule of three could place the reader into the setting better, or convey a mood better.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://acmeauthorslink.blogspot.com
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  24. Terry: I'll bet that's why when trying to evoke extreme effort, using "ands" instead of commas, I'll list one thing and another and another and yet another--it pushes the reader uncomfortably past the usually three!

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  25. Julie - I always used the serial (Oxford) comma, but then editors started removing it. I still tend to use it most of the time. I know I should be consistent, but I confess I know I'm not.

    Morgan - I do think it's the rhythm that makes this work.

    Kathyrn - I tend to overuse 'and' but then I go back with my trusty delete key.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  26. What may be the topic, but it requires to be interesting and helpful in anyway to the readers. You have made the same here in this good post and i really loved the move.

    Thanks :)

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  27. The important thing is to use them sparingly within the scene by varying sentence length, otherwise it becomes monotonous. There is also the heartbeat rhythm of four. I like the "three" unique features used for descriptions. Make a list and cut it down to the three most powerful. Rhythms are catchy.

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  28. That's right, Diana -- anything overdone loses its effectiveness.

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  29. Yes, yes, yes — three times for emphasis.

    And then we have the classic argument for using the Oxford comma (aka, serial comma):

    "I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

    Interesting parentage, to say the least.

    If we have even a single sentence that can be misunderstood as can the one above, we need to consistently use that debated comma; otherwise it appears as though we're limping along on two opinions — or the inconsistency signifies typos. :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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