As a kid, I grew up with the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Stooges, and the Three Musketeers, then watched and loved Three’s Company and sang out loud with Tony Orlando and Dawn to “Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me” and Lionel Richie’s, “Once, twice, three times a lady” and now laugh as Sheldon makes his presence known each week on the Big Bang Theory with, “Knock, knock, knock Penny. Knock, knock, knock Penny. Knock, knock, knock Penny.”
What’s my point? (other than Sheldon has issues ;)) All of these examples use the Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three claims that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things (see, the rule of three was used there too).
Per Wikipedia, “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.”
William Edward Hickson (January 7, 1803 – March 22, 1870), commonly known as W. E. Hickson, a British educational writer, is credited with popularizing the proverb:
“‘Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try, try again.”
Why does this matter? Because the rule of threes speaks to the heart and art of writing. Whether it be three attempts to overcome an obstacle or three adjectives, verbs or nouns, consecutively joined together to create rhythm, there is power in threes.
As a PB writer I’ve studied this incessantly and found that unless you are writing a concept book or a linear story, adding the rule of threes is highly effective. When your main character is struggling, a series of three often builds the tension creating suspense, doubt, and struggle, which often leads to that poignant moment where he/she finally undergoes a change and achieves resolution. However, the try/fail, try/fail, try/fail rule of threes is not the only way to apply threes.
Here are some examples where use of the rule of threes was not only effective but brilliant.
Nugget and Fang by Tammi Sauer not only uses the try/fail, try/fail, try/fail rule of threes but also uses the rule of threes throughout –
“They swam over. GLUG”
“They swam under. GLUG- GLUG”
“They swam all around. GLUG-GLUG-GLUG”
“HAVE YOU LOST YOUR GILLS?”
“SHARKS AND MINNOWS CAN’T BE FRIENDS!”
“HELLO-SHARKS EAT MINNOWS!”
“On Thursday, Fang tried everything he could think of. A tattoo. A special delivery. A song and dance.”
“On Friday, Fang was out of ideas.
All alone, he swam over. BLUB
He swam under. BLUB-BLUB
HE swam all around. BLUB-BLUB-BLUB”
“Fang was so busy boo-hooing he didn’t notice a net drop
“The net pulled
The use of the rule of threes not only builds tension but adds the rhythm of the story.
In Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, the rule of threes is used quite a bit to create rhythm.
Sophie says Bernice is
“Just the right size to hold in her arms, just the right size to bounce on her knee, just the right size to love.”
Bernice went everywhere with Sophie – to story time at the library, to visit other quash at the farmer’s market, to practice somersaults in the garden.
Every night, Sophie gave Bernice a bottle, a hug and a kiss.
Then the man at the farmer’s market tells Sophie that what Bernice needs is fresh air, good clean dirt and a little love.
The use of threes in these examples creates the rhythm that makes the story sing.
A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker
“When he opened his door there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.”
And this description of the mouse – small and gray and bright-eyed – is used throughout the story.
These three short, quick descriptive words add to the characterization of the curious, fleeting, mysterious little the mouse.
Grace for President by Kelley DiPucchio
“Thomas was the school spelling bee champion.
His experiments always took a blue ribbon at the science fair.
And he was captain of the soccer team.”
“Grace came up with a campaign slogan.
Grace listened to what issues were important to the students…
Grace made campaign posters and buttons.”
“At recess she gave SPEECHES.
During lunch, she handed out free CUPCAKES.
After school, she held RALLIES.”
“At recess, Thomas studied his spelling words.
During lunch, he worked on his latest science experiment.
After school, he played soccer.”
Again the use of threes adds a rhythm to the story.
Penguin on Vacation by Salina Yoon
“Penguin had skied, sledded and skated on vacations before.”
Penguin learned some things. You can’t ski on sand. You can’t sled on sand. And you definitely can’t skate on sand.”
“Penguin and Crab played… and played…and played.”
“Sand castle. Catch! Cowabunga!”
“They swam and swam.
They whooshed and pushed.
They fished and wished.”
“Splash! You’re home! Welcome back!”
The use of threes once again establishes the maintains the rhythm of this charming story.
And then to appeal to the engineer in me, I had to include other fascinating facts about the remarkable number 3!
According to Pythagoras and the Pythagorean school, the number 3, which they called triad, is the noblest of all digits, as it is the only number to equal the sum of all the terms below it, and the only number whose sum with those below equals the product of them and itself.
A natural number is divisible by three if the sum of its digits in base 10 is divisible by 3. For example, the number 21 is divisible by three (3 times 7) and the sum of its digits is 2 + 1 = 3. Because of this, the reverse of any number that is divisible by three (or indeed, any permutation of its digits) is also divisible by three. For instance, 1368 and its reverse 8631 are both divisible by three (and so are 1386, 3168, 3186, 3618, etc.). See also Divisibility rule. This works in base 10 and in any positional numeral system whose base divided by three leaves a remainder of one (bases 4, 7, 10, etc.).
Three is approximately π (actually closer to 3.14159) when doing rapid engineering guesses or estimates. The same is true if one wants a rough-and-ready estimate of e, which is actually approximately 2.71828.
And now as a mom of three perfect kids, I have to agree, three is perfect!