Three, Four, Shut the Door
So, did you cure all your warts last week? At least, I hope you used blood, sweat and tears (and toil) and searched here, there and everywhere for examples of the Rule of Three. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in giving you the “thinner, lighter, and faster” version of how to use it to add creative power to your own writing.
♠ You can apply the Rule of Three to all sorts of writing building blocks: words and phrases and clauses and sentences. (I know, that’s not three. Get over it. I needed to write it that way for the *Note* that’s coming next.) [*Note* Did you recognize “words and phrases and clauses,” a use of the Rule of Three from Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction”?]
♣ There are three main Rule of Three processes you can apply to those building blocks: repetition, lists and progressions.
♥ The Rule of Three can also be applied to the structures of the creative and business works you write.
Let me explain..
♠ Here are examples of the Rule of Three applied to:
Words: Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll
“We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow –this ground.” –Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.” –The Big Bad Wolf, The three Little Pigs
Sentences: “There are three golden rules for Parliamentary speakers: Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.” –James Lowther, 1st Viscount Ullswater
♣ Rule of Three applied to building blocks using Repetition, Lists, Progressions
The simplest way to invoke the Rule of Three is to simply write the same word, phrase or sentence three times:
- “Run, Jane, run. Run, run, run!”
- “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” –Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” 1963
- When I reported for jury duty, the officer in charge made a number of announcements. One was, “Bring your form with you to the jury room.” She said it—pointedly—three times in a row. No one in her courtroom ever forgot to bring that form.
Use repetition to emphasize the importance of your single concept. I still remember a 1974 TV jingle that said, “If it says ‘Libby’s,’ ‘Libby’s,’ ‘Libby’s’ on the label, label, label, you will like it, like it, like it on your table, table, table.” And my business bio contains a repeat: “I strive to connect with clients…For me, it’s about people, people, people.”
Particularly effective repetition techniques are beginning (this is called anaphora) and ending (this is called epistrophe) successive clauses or sentences with the same word or phrase:
- “It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.” –Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, 2005
- “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” — Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
A similar way to use the Rule of Three is to list three different related words in sequence:
- “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” –National Lampoon’s Animal House, 1978
- “At Creative Power Writing, I’m all about experience, creativity and connection.”
Listing single words often yields memorable catchphrases. Use it when you want to make a Charles Atlas statement that you need readers to remember and repeat. Put your list on steroids and tattoo it on your readers’ brains by using alliteration:
- “At Creative Power Writing, I’m all about craft, creativity and connection.”
When you need to transmit deeper meaning than is possible through single words, use phrases or sentences. It works best when they are parallel in structure. Remember, though, that phrases are harder to remember than single words.
- “Conan, what is best in life?” - “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.” –Conan the Barbarian, 1982
- “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation—not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy.” –Barack Obama, Keynote speech to Democratic National Convention, July 2004
Don’t get carried away and pepper your writing with lists, though, as I did in my opening paragraph. Like your favorite recipe, any great technique, overused, loses its effectiveness. Be judicious about how, where and how often you use the Rule of Three, in general, and lists, in particular. Study how other great writers and speakers have employed them. They should be like garlic—doing the job without choking anyone. If your threes stink like too much garlic, you’ve overdone it. The three in this paragraph is fine. Including one after another in the opening paragraph is too much—or did you catch that I was doing it on purpose to illustrate a point?
In progressions, you invoke groups of three that lead somewhere. One word or phrase may lead to the next, which leads to the next—in linear or chronological order, because one causes the next, etc.
- “Every now and then, say ‘What the f–k!’ ‘What the f–k’ gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.” —Risky Business, 1983
Or, progressions can be cumulative, where successive words or phrases add to or subtract from one another, in number, depth, intensity, size, etc.
- “Are you crying? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!” –A League of Their Own, 1992
- “We came. We saw. We kicked its ass.” –Ghostbusters, 1984
A third variation of progression occurs when the first two words or phrases lead to a conclusion:
- The Few. The Proud. The Marines.
- “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” –Lyndon Baines Johnson
- Family therapist Virginia Satir encouraged people to have at least three choices. She said:
…to have one choice is no choice;
to have two choices is a dilemma;
and to have three choices offers new possibilities.
- This type of progression is also indicative of the “setup, anticipation, punchline” of a joke. Here’s a joke from Jon Stewart:
“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
Progressions are particularly effective because you tell a story or make a beginning-to-end statement.
♥ Apply the Rule of Three to the structure of your writing, too
Make sure whatever you write has that magical, perfect, three-part structure.
- Story (beginning, middle, end)
- Play (3 Acts)
- Essay (introduction, body with three points, conclusion)
- Speech (tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em what you just told ’em)
- Marketing pitch (3-word tagline, 3 main benefit statements)
- Business bio (purpose, perspective, personality)
In fiction, inject any part of your story with the power of three:
- In Rumpelstiltskin, the little man helps the Miller’s daughter spin straw into gold three times; he gives her three days to guess his name and three guesses each day.
- In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. By first showing him the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, Dickens is able to generate suspense for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to whom Scrooge says, “Spirit, I fear you most of all.”
- Goldilocks sits in the chairs, slurps the porridge, sleeps in the beds.
Setting/Objects or 3 parts of a single object:
- Straw, stick, brick houses of the Three Little Pigs
- Jack steals a bag of gold coins, a golden goose, and a magical harp from the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Before I leave you to display the awesome power of three in your writing, here’s a final piece of inspiration: Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars knock-‘em dead acceptance speech is a perfect example of the use of the Rule of Three. Something to aspire to…
More power to you!
**Sorry about the weird bullets. Can’t figure out how to move them to the right!