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What’s so enticing about the Rule of Three?

by Felicia Cameron Leger

My current manuscript opens with my protagonist on the run. It’s been a long night, and he battles his exhaustion by counting the rhythm of his steps – in threes. I remember writing that opening scene like it was yesterday, but I don’t remember stopping to decide which number to choose. My fingers just typed three.

The Rule of Three is all around us. Storytellers have used it – whether consciously or not – since storytelling began. We’ve all heard the idioms: Three sheets to the wind, the third time’s a charm, bad things always happen in threes. See? I just used the rule, myself. I could have stopped after the second example, but that would have felt incomplete. There’s just something about the heart of a writer that is attracted to groupings of three.

And we aren’t the only ones. Public figures throughout history have effectively used the Rule of Three to captivate their audiences. Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato laid the groundwork for people like Abraham Lincoln, who used it in The Gettysburg Address: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Eleanor Roosevelt used it in her Preserving Civil Liberties speech, Gandhi used it in his Non-Violence Resistance speech and Martin Luther King, Jr. used it to inspire the nation with I Have a Dream.

So what’s so enticing about the Rule of Three? Why do manuscripts have three acts? Why do jokes involve three characters? Should the minister, the rabbi and the priest always hang out together? The scientific answer is yes. The human brain likes to process information in sequences, and the sequence it likes best is three.

Three is the sweet spot. Any less, and the brain won’t recognize it as a sequence. Any more, and retention begins to fail.

To quote the heroine of a well-known fairy tale involving bears, three is “just right.”

All that scientific stuff is pretty interesting, but I still think there’s more to the puzzle than that. I mean, why do our brains like to process information in sequences of three? Why didn’t God design us with a proclivity for twos or twelves or one hundred twenty-sevens? As a Christian, I believe it has something to do with the Trinity. For others, maybe it’s about the three-part journey through life that we all must travel: beginning, middle, end.

Whatever the reason, we humans have an instinct for good storytelling ingrained in us. We know when a tale is satisfying, and we know when it leaves us feeling less than whole. We may not be able to pinpoint exactly how the Rule of Three is at work in a story, but our positive emotional response will tell us it’s there. And for those of us who tell stories for a living, this is encouraging news. Even on days when our writing is a chaotic mess, our creativity has gone out the window and our laptop freezes for the umpteenth time, we can always just take a deep breath… and count to three.

Felicia Cameron Leger

About Felicia Cameron Leger

Felicia Cameron Leger is a writer of Christian fiction and has a background in historical research. She has a fascination with the events that have passed before us, and the primordial ways in which they influence us today. She is presently working on a novel set in first century Rome.

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