Breaking the Rule of Three

Three is a big deal. The number, that is. Have you ever noticed? Especially in literary undertakings.

The Rule of Three is actually a writing principle, did you know that? Not just for characters, but also in phrases. E.G. “Go, Team, Go!” It’s also a memorization rule. Research shows people tend to remember things better if they come in groups of three. It’s also true in syntax, or sentence structure.

The Rule of Three is well documented. Let’s take a peek at some famous examples of the power of three in literature, recent and long past.

1. Harry Potter. Obvious for today’s society. Three main characters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It just works. And there are numerous secondary character threesomes.

2. The Hunger Games. Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. At times, Gale flickers out and other people replace him to complete the triad, but it’s still valid.

3. Twilight (blech). I despise Twilight, but it still follows the Rule of Three. Bella, Edward, and Jacob.

4. A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is visited by three spirits. Just enough. Not too many, not too few.

5. The Three Little Pigs. It’s all in the name.

6. Macbeth. There are three witches. They meet three times. They say things in three. (See what I did there? The Rule of Three in repetitive sentences).

7. The Three Musketeers. I know, I know. Technically, there are four, but the for the purposes of this list, it reinforces my point.

Well, what happens if you break that rule? Are you banned to the literary rubbish bin for all eternity? Are you black-listed from agents and publishers?

I sure hope not. Because I’ve done it.

I’m breaking the Rule of Three.

You heard me. In my MG fantasy books, there is one main character and three other secondary main characters, if that makes sense. Which means, for me, it’s the Rule of Four.

Although there is something inherently pleasing about the number three, it just isn’t always possible. Believe me, I tried to find ways around the four characters, but there wasn’t one. I’d have to completely gut the book to make it work. And honestly, I like the group of four characters. They’re all so different and bring unique traits to the story that it’d be like cutting off one of my limbs. Of which I have FOUR! Ha!

What do you all think of the Rule of Three? Is it a hard and fast rule for you? Can you think of any other examples? Do you follow the Rule of Three, or are you a rebel, like me?

Happy writing!

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham

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11 thoughts on “Breaking the Rule of Three

  1. I’ve never thought of this. Maybe because I don’t think it’s as clear cut and dry in some of the series I read. It works for Spenser. Doesn’t work for Harry Bosch or Alex Cross or Elvis Cole. Hm. But I think I had three kinda main characters in my book? So eh.

  2. I’m aware of and usually a follower of the group of three. But I notice in my first book, I had one main character and two supporting–kind of a threesome–and then I had a storyline with six students, a multiple of three. So I guess I’m still following it.
    Wizard of Oz–Dorothy and three characters.
    To Kill a Mockingbird–Atticus, Scout, and Jem.
    Kate Atkinson mysteries–main character, though his daughter and ex-wife are constants;often her storylines have threes.
    Interesting.

  3. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to writing. There are always good reasons to break a rule if it works in a certain circumstance. But this is really interesting to me, because I’ve never really thought of the rule of three in relation to characters. I do have a group of three in Demon’s Heart, but my other WIP has either two or four, depending on how you look at it. I guess that means I get to join you in the rebel category. 🙂 I do very much enjoy using threes in rhetoric, however.

    • I enjoy threes, as well. It’s pleasing. Two is too few, four is too many. And concerning Demon’s Heart, it depends on which three you’re talking about, because I can think of different groups of three, as well as simple pairings and then larger groups. For different parts of the story, the group of three is different. So, you follow the rule, sort of. Heh. So, yes. Be a rebel!

  4. Hmm… As a professional photographer, I know of the Rule of Thirds when shooting a portrait, but I’ve never heard of the Rule of Three when writing. That’s very interesting. 🙂

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