Threesology Research Journal
Entertainment... E

(The Study of Threes)

tvtropes (3K)

Rule of Three

Good things come in 3s. So do bad things. And even things that are neither good nor bad.
Good things come in 3s. So do bad things. And even things that are neither good nor bad.
Good things come in 3s. So do bad things. And even things that are neither good nor bad.

Sometimes called trebling, the Rule Of 3 is a pattern used in stories and jokes, where part of the story is repeated 3 times, with minor variations. The first 2 instances build tension, and the 3rd releases it by incorporating a twist.

3 Triangles (10K)
I know what you're thinking:
is that 3 triangles or 5?

This is especially common in story telling. The 3rd of 3 brothers succeeds after his older siblings each failed. The protagonist is given 3 tests and receives the prize after the 3rd. It's almost unusual to find a folktale that does not incorporate the Rule Of 3 in some form. This may be an artifact of the oral tradition, in which the stock formula of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd attempt makes the story easier to remember.

Following on from the oral tradition, speech-writers have learnt the 'Rule Of 3' - listen to a political speech- the points come in 3s, from 'Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer' to Tony Blair declaring 'Education, education, education'.

The Rule Of 3 is also used widely in comedy. Many popular jokes are based on 3 Stock Characters (e.g. Priest, Imam, Rabbi), all in the same situation. The first 2 react normally, the 3rd does something ridiculous (but stereotypically in character). In Britain, Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes denigrate either the Irishman as stupid or the Scotsman as a tightwad, while the Englishman is usually the Straight Man of the gag (Unless it's being told by the Scots or Irish. When an American tells it, Englishmen are stuffed shirts.) This is why most Americans have never heard of Wales. Another (geeky) variant is the engineer/physicist/mathematician series of jokes, however, these are virtually never considered offensive, largely because the stereotypes are often jokingly accepted by the members of those 3 groups. (e.g. The engineer is overly practical, the physicist makes large assumptions, and the mathematician comes up with a correct, but useless answer; these are played up for humorous effect, but have some valid basis).

A more popular variation on the rule is to repeat the same joke or concept 3 times, but put a twist on the 3rd one that makes it funny again. One version of this is The Triple, wherein a character lists 3 items - the first 2 logical and serious, and the 3rd applying a twist or joke. For example, a character might say to a bald person, "Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?" (From The Dick Van Dyke Show.)

Alternatively, the twist can come during the 2nd iteration (such as Chekhov's Skill) failing the first time it's used only to return to its original form on the 3rd pass; this version tends to accompany Chekhov's tropes.

The Overly Long Gag could be seen as a subversion of the Rule of Three, because it fails to deliver the expected twist.

Sometimes, an event needs to be shown three times to establish that a variation to the norm is happening. The first time the audience sees this event, they see it happening a certain way, but they don't yet know that this is typical. The second time they see it, it is the same as the first. This establishes that this is the standard way that things always happen. The third time they see the event in question, it is different, so the audience knows that this is a deviation from the norm. For example, in The Shawshank Redemption, we see Red appear before the parole board three times. The first two appearances are practically identical. The third instance is different, indicating how Red changed after Andy left.

In art, there's a rule of 3rds where putting items in the intersections between 3rds-lines draws more attention and is more visually appealing than plonking them right in the center, which is considered boring. In design, particularly 3-dimensional design such as shop displays, groups of three objects, or objects arranged to form a triangle, are considered most attractive to the eye.

The Rule Of Three may be a subtrope of a more general psychological phenomenon, as threes are well-noted in all forms of culture. Films, books and plays come in trilogies. They have a Three Act Structure, a Beginning, Middle and End. Counts of 3 elements are used widely in rhetoric, writing and myth: "Ready, aim, fire", "Veni, Vidi, Vici", "Lights, camera, action", "Reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic," "rhetoric, writing and myth". Just try and think about how many times you've heard the phrase "On the count of three..."

A constructed phrase such as "Veni, Vidi, Vici." that has 3 grammatically and logically connected elements is known as a Tricolon. When the 3 elements increase in length, it's a Tricolon Crescens.

This is why there are Power Trios and Terrible Trios.

Variations on this trope include uses of 5, 7, 12, and convenient multiples of 5 afterwards (i.e., 25, 50, but not 35 or 70).

Sub Tropes include:

Three Wishes,
These Questions Three,
Third Time's The Charm,
Trilogy Creep,
On Three,
Counting to Three,
The Three Certainties in Life, and
Two out of Three Ain't Bad.

See also:

Basic Conflicts and other plot devices which often come in 3s or 7s, and Three Rules Of Three, a wiki guideline. Not to be confused with 4, unless you're counting elements, bodily fluids, and other dimensions.
5 is right out.

Related to other:

→ rules of three ← → in number only ← or → in politics. ←

Not to be confused with the → rule of thirds ←.

Rule of Symbolism Rule of Index Two out of Three Ain't Bad
Number Tropes The Three Certainties in Life Older Than Feudalism
Sacred Hospitality Royal Blood Fairy Tale Tropes
Rule of Seven Laws and Formulas Rules of Orphan Economics
Invoked Trope Overdosed Tropes BFS
Rule of Funny Pothole Magnet Sarcasm Mode
Rule Breaker Rule Namer Comedy Tropes Rules Of The Road
Rouge Angles of Satin Self-Demonstrating Article Running Gag

Friday, March 7, 2014

Your Questions, Comments or Additional Information are welcomed:
Herb O. Buckland