The rule of three in storytelling has several uses. The first works like this:
- One tells us what the risk is.
- Two confirms what wrong behavior is.
- At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the un- successful pattern and win.
If that folk tale was about just one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn’t get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anticlimax. No story.
Refer to: Picturebook Study: The Three Little Pigs
Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.
It’s the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.
From Anson Dibell’s book on writing called Plot:
If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there’s going to be more tension and drama when they try the third time because we’ve already seen them fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn’t work, we know the situation; now we’re focusing on what they’re doing differently this time. We’re aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.
Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three.
- The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you’re too busy being shocked to notice.
- The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.
- The third time, you’ve started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.
If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it’s fully begun to happen, there’s nothing like a triple set- up to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the read- er’s attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene’s meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.
Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/ shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.
The second use is far more simple. Show a character doing something three times and we will assume they keep on going until the end.
An example of this occurs in Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig. Eugenia, the arch nemesis, plants pansies all around her house. Mercy makes a hole in the hedge and eats three pansies. Then the chapter ends. We deduce that she eats far more than three pansies. If left to her own devices, she will eat all of the pansies.
For an example of The Rule Of Three in a popular movie, see this article about Star Trek: First Contact.
The most important thing I [Nora Ephron] learned from Lee [a chef] was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate to match it and contradict it.
– Nora Ephron, from I Feel Bad About My Neck