I often teach what is called the Rule of Three in my workshops and lectures, and thought I’d share the idea with you all.
Basically, the Rule of Three is an ancient principle of storytelling in which words, characters or events occur in patterns of three.
Humans are pattern-loving creatures. In fact, to be honest, all living organisms are. Pattern recognition helps us make sense of a chaotic world, predict what may happen next, and acquire response behaviours that can become virtually instantaneous in the face of danger. Quite simply, our brains need patterns and order to learn and remember and adapt. Pattern recognition helps us survive … and so we crave it.
And because things which are highly patterned are more memorable than things that are not, stories and songs and advertising jingles all use rhythm and rhyme and repetition (repeated patterns of sound) to help people remember them.
So now we understand why we love things that appear in patterns. But why the number three?
Basically, three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. It is the only number which equals the sum of all the numbers below it, which apparently led Pythagoras to call it the noblest of numbers (unsurprisingly, maths is not my greatest strength but even I can work out what that means.) And it’s a key number in the Fibonacci sequence, often called the golden ratio for the fascinating way in which it appears in art and mathematics, & in nature – flower petals, seed heads, spiralling shells, hurricanes and spiral galaxies all adhere to the same ratio.
The pattern of three appears in such common everyday things as:
- Past, present, future
- Birth, life, death
- Heaven, earth, hell
- The Three Fates
- Maiden, Mother, Crone
- Son, Father, Holy Spirit
- Blood, sweat, tears
- Scissors, paper, rock
- The good, the bad & the ugly
I am most particularly concerned, though, with the Rule of Three in storytelling. And so it’s worth taking a look at the oldest of all human stories – myth, fairy-tales and folk-tales - where unsurprisingly we see the number three appearing again and again and again.
Vladimir Propp was a Russian folklorist and linguist who rigorously studied thousands of his country’s folktales in order to identify their simplest narrative functions. In his book Morphology of the Folktale, published in 1928, he identified a basic and fundamental rule of narrative structure that he called ‘trebling’.
Trebling appears most obviously in folktales and nursery rhymes such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, and ‘Three Blind Mice.’ However, we also have Rumpelstiltskin and his three spinnings of straw into gold, and then the queen’s three chances to guess his name. The wicked stepmother tries to kill Snow White three times with three poisoned objects. And in the earliest versions of ‘Cinderella,’ she goes to a ball and dances with the prince three times.
Here are some of the ways that trebling appears in literature:
- Trebling in Use of Language
The use of three adjectives or phrases, as in these famous quotations: ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’; ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’; ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’; and one of my own personal favourites, Mary Oliver’s ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’
- Trebling in Individual Elements
We often see patterns of three in individual motifs or symbols – such as in the braid of impossibly long hair in Rapunzel, or the three-headed dog of Hades, or the three-headed giant in ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’
- Trebling in Characters
If a protagonist is part of a family, there are usually three siblings of the same sex, as in Cinderella and her two stepsisters, or King Lear’s three daughters, or the brothers in the Romani fairy tale ‘An Old King and His Three Sons’. If so, the youngest and humblest will be the protagonist. Often the two older siblings set out on some kind of quest but fail. The youngest is the one who succeeds in the task, even though he or she may be scorned, mocked, or denigrated by the older siblings. This is usually recorded as Try & Fail/Try & Fail/Try & Triumph.
- Trebling in Narrative Patterns i.e. three tests, three tasks, three trials
The Rule of Three is very prevalent in narrative patterns, in which the protagonist must overcome three obstacles before they can triumph. In this case, the difficulty increases with each obstacle. Usually, the first two attempts result in failures and the final third in triumph i.e. the house of straw, the house of sticks, the house of bricks in ‘The Three Little Pigs’, another example of the Try & Fail/Try & Fail/Try & Triumph pattern. In some myths and fairy tales, the protagonist succeeds at each task but the third is the hardest & most crucial. For example, in the story of ‘The Golden Bird’, the third son must rescue a golden bird, then a golden horse, and then a princess to save the life of his king. Three trials or ordeals is less common; the most famous occurrence is in the Norse myth of Odin who endured three torments upon the World Tree in his quest for wisdom:
- he hanged himself
- he wounded himself with a spear
- he suffered from hunger and thirst
- Three Gifts or Three Magical Helpers
Sometimes the protagonist is given three gifts, as in ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’. In this case, it is the third and final gift that helps the heroine win the day and rescue her beast-husband, and so we again see the pattern of Try & Fail/Try & Fail/Try & Triumph. In other stories, the protagonist will be helped by three magical helpers, as in the story of Psyche and Cupid, in which an ant, a reed and an eagle assist her in succeeding at impossible tasks set by the goddess Aphrodite. Again, the third task is the most difficult.
- Three Revelations
Sometimes the Rule of Three applies to three revelations or epiphanies that bring about radical transformation, such as in Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. The protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge receives visits from three spirits: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. To him, Scrooge says, ‘Spirit, I fear you most of all.’ Each ghost opens his eyes to some aspect of his past, teaching him some kind of lesson, which transforms him utterly by the end of the story.
- The Threefold Structure
The Rule of Three can also be seen, more subtly, in narrative structure. Northrop Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism, said stories have ‘three main stages: the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero.’ In myths from around the world, we see journeys to the underworld adhere to the pattern of Descent/Search/Ascent. And, of course, the well-known three-act structure of the dramatic arc, usually expressed as Problem/Confrontation/Resolution.
Of course, sets of three are not the only patterning in narratives, but it is by far the most prevalent. The Rule of Three is so ancient and universal, there is a perfect trio of Latin words to express the idea: Omne trium perfectum
It means ‘everything that comes in threes is perfect.’