Trope Talk: Rule Of 3

[Wham!] What’s the best way to tell that you’ve been magically transported to a fictional universe? Well, besides everyone being staggeringly beautiful and never using filler words, your first clue will probably be that stuff starts happening in 3’s. Three trials, three characters, three brothers, three great gods, three tries to make something work, three Holmes siblings. Stuff just keeps happening in 3’s. What’s up with that? This trope is so old and widespread that we can’t even call it a trope. It’s just a thing. It’s a rhythm in fiction to the degree that it just feels natural for stuff to happen in 3’s. We talk with sets of three examples or descriptors. We repeat ourselves three times. We make trios of protagonists and put them through three acts in sets of three trials. Seriously! I just did the three example thing right now! What the heck? Now it’s not strictly universal but it is pretty widespread in modern literature. On a grand scale, mythical world-building often splits the world into 3’s: Heaven, earth, and underworld is a pretty common subdivision, sometimes reskinned as human, spirit, and demon worlds. While in Norse, they took it a step further and took the universe and divided it into three levels, each containing its own set of three worlds. This triple world system has obviously literary advantages. It gives you the familiar world, the dangerous other world, and the cool other world, allowing you two varieties of magical journeys for the price of one. It also lets you pit those worlds against each other if you want, which lets you have your familiar world get stuck in the middle of some kind of trans-dimensional conflict. One step down from the world scale, triple deities are also very common. Beyond the obvious Christian example, we have the three son of Chronos ruling the three districts of the world. The triple goddess Hecate. The three fates. The three graces. The three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva handling the creation, preservation, and destruction of the world. The three Morrígna. There’s tons of them! And in modern fiction, this is also crazy common. There’s three goddesses in the Zelda series. [“Yu-Gi-Oh”]

Three Egyptian god cards. [“Lord of the Rings”]

Three Silmarils. All that jazz. Then when we get down to the scale of story structure, we have the three trial system. We also have that three act thing but that’s much more of a modern construct. We’ll talk about it later. The three trial system is at least as old as folklore, probably older, wherein a character gets dropped into a situation and has to overcome three trials to move to a different situation. Or has to accomplish some task and gets three tries to do it. In modern literature, tension-building demands that our hero fail twice then succeed on the third try. And this can be as large scale as three tries to take down the evil overlord or as small scale as three tries to catch this falling object. And on the smallest scales story-wise, characters will often come in sets of 3’s. In folklore, sets of three siblings are really common, often coinciding with the three trials format. Each sibling takes a trial and only the third and youngest child succeeds. Or sometimes, they all make a choice and only the youngest child gets the choice right. But trios of siblings aren’t as common in modern literature. It’s generally been replaced by the power trio, a group of three protagonists who play off each other’s strengths to kick a beautiful rainbow of ass together. Common trio formats include: Fighter, rogue, mage. Brains, brawn, looks. Combat, diplomacy, stealth. Hero, best friend, girl, etc. Now in modern literature, sets of three heroes are common but not universal. Five to seven heroes also show up. But when that happens, you often find that at the heart of the group, there is a trio. Maybe three old friends, supplemented by a few new allies. Or a trio of general badasses with a couple more fragile specialists. The five-man-band format will often have a core trio fitting one of the aforementioned triple tropes, with the addition of a couple supplementary characters to support the trio in some way. In some cases, the trio is itself a support role to one or more of the added characters. Maybe they stumble on a protagonist or two and end up forming the comic relief squad to contrast the newfound drama of their new buddies. Whether or not the trio will be relegated to a comedy role kind of depends on whether or not the trio contains the hero. But regardless, when you have a set of more than three characters, you’re probably going to find a close-knit trio embedded in the group. Now going back to the three trials thing, there are two main rhythms that get used. Either all the trials go the same way or the first two go one way and the third goes the other. The first mostly happens when the hero can’t afford to fail. At which point, plot armor will guarantee success. The second, however, is rather more interesting. See, the hero that fails twice and succeeds the third time is very prevalent in modern literature because the payoff is (to us) maximally effective. If they succeed on the first try, it doesn’t feel like they were challenged. If they fail once and then succeed, it feels like the first one might have been a fluke. But if they fail at least twice, the stakes get raised. We get the impression that this task is hard, possibly getting more difficult even as our hero has become better prepared. The eventual victory becomes delayed gratification and feels a lot more earned than an easy win. And this is definitely useful but if (instead of delayed gratification) you’d rather twist the knife a little, you can invoke the inverse of the lose-lose-win model. Have your hero succeed it every step but the last one. Often, this ends up nested in the lose-lose-win model if attempt #2 involves a complex multi-step plan that looks like it should work but then everything falls apart on step 2C. This can lead to a second act “darkest hour” scenario, especially if the plan failing had significant negative consequences. [“Aang: The Last Airbender”]

The Avatar episodes about the day of black sun are a really good example of this. Overall, the win-win-lose thing works very well to make your audience feel bad (which is always a useful ability to have). But now, we have got to talk about subversion. Most of the time when you have a trope, you’ve also got to consider the pros and cons of subverting the trope. Generally, the first pro is that it is, by definition, unexpected. But the first con is that as a result, you need to do a lot more work to make that part of the story flow smoothly. Tropes are narrative shortcuts. Avoiding the trope means avoiding the shortcut. So how do we subvert the rule of three and more importantly, should we? See, the rule of three is, as I said earlier, more than a trope. It’s like a literary time signature. It gives the narrative a rhythm, a comfortable pattern, and a degree of stability. See? I just did it there! Three-example patterns are super common in spoken English because they feel most effective. Enough descriptors to give an overall feel for the thing but not so many as to bore your audience. And three is a solid number for that exact reason. Enough to give multiple things to work with but not so many as to confuse or overburden the audience. Three protagonists is a solid base of characters. It gives you three possible two-person interactions, three possible solo-focus arcs, and some fun three-way banter possibilities. Add a fourth character and things can get a little awkward. Those three-person banter scenarios will still exist but they’ll leave someone excluded as most conversations can accommodate at most, three people comfortably. And, of course, suddenly, you have six inter-character relationships to keep in mind, doubling the amount of relationships your audience needs to keep straight. It’s easier to care less and less about the characters the more characters you have to deal with. Even if you have a least favorite member of a character trio, you probably still appreciate the interactions that character makes possible. [“Harry Potter”]

Most people don’t like Ron as much as Harry or Hermione but even the most cold-hearted of us [“Harry Potter”]

can appreciate his beautiful friendship with Harry that the movies shamefully ignored. Ok, so trios of characters seem like a good idea. Even in groups of five or more, subdividing into groups of two and three lets us retain the benefit of trio dynamics. You can subvert the rule of three here but it’s a little hard to pull off in part because the rule of three tends to naturally arise in human social structures in any group of five or more. Ok, so what about the three worlds thing? That one, you can totally subvert. One world is traditional: one living world and a catchall underworld is common. The addition of a dream world or an astral plane can offset any number of worlds. In that case, the rule of 3 is almost purely out of habit and can (and has) been easily subverted. The three trial format can also be subverted. In fact, it’s one of the easiest ways to throw your audience off balance. Maybe your character passes all three tests but then there’s a fourth test and now, they’re back at square one. Or maybe they have to do a thing and they get it on their first try. Or heck! Start throwing around other recurring numbers. Maybe they have seven tasks to complete or four or whatever. You can also have the first two play out as expected then subvert expectations on the third and add a fourth. Whatever, it’s quick, painless, and an easy way to thwart audience expectations. It’s another case where the rule of three is mostly just a habit and subverting it doesn’t really negatively affect the story that much. So we can see that the rule of three isn’t really a rule at all. But it is, uh, a rhythm in a lot of western literature most likely because the rule of three was almost universal in European folklore, which is one of the biggest sources of literary inspiration for modern day western media. It shows up a lot less outside that sphere of influence because the pattern of recurring 3’s doesn’t show up very much in east Asian, south Asian, or African literature. You do get the three regalia in Japan and the Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva trinity in Hinduism. And there’s at least one 3-event rhythm instance in the Epic of Sundiata. But 5’s or 7’s are much more common in literature inspired by stuff outside of European folklore. There’s seven years in exile, like Sundiata and his family. There are seven sins or virtues. Sometimes, seven siblings will show up. Seven years and seven people tend to be fairly common. And 5’s are very common but only in groups of people. You almost never get the five years in exile thing. There are five Pandava brothers in the “Mahabharata”. And five pilgrims in “Journey to the West”. And together, they are responsible for every five-man-band in modern literature. And it’s notable that both of these groups do easily subdivide into a core group of three. Arjuna, Bhima, and Yudhishthira for the Pandavas with the twins in a more supporting role. Tripitaka, Sun Wu Kong, and Pigsy for the “Journey to the West”, with Sandy and the horse largely irrelevant to the progression of the plot. But as for the rhythm of events happening in 3’s as far as I know, that’s barely present outside of European folklore. And as for the three act structure as near as I could tell, that came out of nowhere. Because early folklore was a freaking mess without any structure, let alone a three-act setup, conflict, resolution. Like for a quick example, let’s talk about the Albanian precursor to the modern “Cinderella”. Now, modern Cinderella is a polished three-act beauty of a story. The setup is that she’s stuck in an abusive household with a stepmother who hates her. The conflict is that she wants to go to the ball but her stepmother and stepsisters sabotage her. The resolution is that fairy-God-Jesus emerges out of nowhere to make her dreams come true. The original version is much less structured. To start, proto-Cinderella’s dead mother left her a magic cow. The stepmother keeps finding new excuses to abuse proto-Cinderella and gives her impossible chores to complete so she can beat her when she fails to finish in time. But every time that happens, the magic cow magically boosts her speed to make her fast enough to do the chores. Stepmother gets sick of it and convinces her husband to kill the cow. Proto-Cinderella buries the bones but they continue to talk to her and give her magic benefits, which is good because her stepmother has seen all the boys flocking around her. And she hates the idea that proto-Cinderella might get married before her own daughter. So she forces proto-Cinderella to coat her face in soot to make her ugly. You could say this is all setup but we’re also getting a little hint of conflict here, even though we haven’t even mentioned the ball yet. So post-ugly-fying , the magic necro-cow magically gives Cinderella a makeover and a fabulous dress so she can go to dance in town without her stepmother catching on. So she does and the Prince, who happens to be around, dances with her. She goes home, returns her magic glam kit to the necro-cow, and goes about her day. But the Prince decides to hold a dance to try and find the mystery girl he danced with. Proto-Cinderella “Sailor Moon’s” it up again, goes to the ball, and dances with the Prince, then returns to her secret identity as an impoverished peasant girl. The next week, the Prince does it again, she goes to the dance again, and this time, he grabs her shoe, uses it to find her the next day, happily ever after. Blah, blah, blah. This story is almost completely unstructured. At best, it is divided in two between the cow being alive and the cow being dead. There’s barely any conflict since the necro-cow was too powerful for the stepmother to adequately combat. And proto-Cinderella gets her happy ending without any kind of third act intervention. And that’s one of the more tame pieces of folklore. There is this other one where a girl with a wicked stepmother goes through an entire nightmare’s trial scenario to transform a cursed prince back to being human, then marries him. That is its own three trial structure. But then she gets lost, finds and rescues another prince who is stuck dying every morning and being resurrected every night. She marries him and then her first husband finds out and they have this huge fight over her. And when they’re both tuckered out, she dies of dehydration. It makes no sense by modern literary standards. That’s like four separate stories all wrapped up in there. The bottom line is folklore was pretty much unstructured by modern standards because stuff just kept happening in this weird stream of consciousness pattern. And the thing about the three act structure is you can kind of justify claiming that any structure follows it. For the necro-cow Cinderella story, we can say that the setup is the part where the cow is alive. The conflict begins when the stepmother tries to prevent her from getting married. And the resolution begins with the Prince stealing her shoe. Like, we can totally say that and it kind of makes sense. But it’s clear that the story wasn’t written that way. Any story can be divided into setup, conflict, resolution because conflict can be as big and complicated or as non-confrontational as you want it to be. And setup and resolution can be less than a sentence each. Not even mentioning all the stories where the resolution is basically a total lack of resolution. Like, the story where the princess dies at the end. In a way, the three act structure is similar to the rule of three in that it’s much more of an observable phenomenon than an actual rule you have to follow verbatim. Most stories have a setup, some kind of conflict, and some kind of conflict resolution. But that’s about as helpful as saying that most songs have a few bars at the beginning before the singing starts. It’s true but it’s not really a rule. This is where we basically run into the numerology problem. It’s possible to mathematically finagle your way into any kind of numerical result if you’re determined enough. Modern writing loves bringing stuff full circle. Mirrors and parallels are favorite devices. Resonances and things that echo in story are also popular. Folklore tends to be very unpolished; rather than a specific moral or message, it’s just a series of events. It’s only when it gets cleaned up for modern consumption that you start getting framing sequences, character arcs, questions being answered at the climax of Act 2, and all that other stuff that’s meant to make a story clean, self-contained, and good. Without that, there’s no visible three act structure which makes me think that it’s probably a biproduct of modern writing rules rather than the overall rule of three which seems to have risen from rhythms in European folklore. So, uh, yeah. “Thank you to our $5+ patrons:” “Thank you to our $5+ patrons:”

“Read the list of names” “Read the list of names”
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSpRPlhRvjA

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