Follow TV Tropes


Rule of Three
aka: Rule Of Threes

Go To

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

Sometimes called trebling, the Rule of Three is a pattern used in stories and jokes, where part of the story is told three times, with minor variations. The first two instances build tension, and the third releases it by incorporating a twist.

Three is the smallest number required to create and then diverge from a pattern, so it's especially common in storytelling.The third of three siblings succeeds after their older siblings each failed. The protagonist is given three tests and receives the prize after the third. It's fairly unusual to find a folktale that does not incorporate the Rule of Three in some form.

Following on from the oral tradition, speech-writers have learnt the 'Rule of Three' — listen to a political speech — the points come in threes, from 'Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer' to Tony Blair declaring 'Education, education, education' note  . In persuasive or educational speaking, it also is a foundational concept: "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; Tell 'em; Tell 'em what you told 'em" note 

The Rule of Three is also used widely in comedy. Many popular jokes are based on three Stock Characters (e.g. Priest, Imam, Rabbi), all in the same situation. The first two react normally, the third 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 three 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 three times, but put a twist on the third one that makes it funny again. One version of this is The Triple, wherein a character lists three items - the first two logical and serious, and the third 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 second iteration (such as Chekhov's Skill) failing the first time it's used only to return to its original form on the third 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.

The trope is also incredibly common in fairytales and ghost stories that are part of oral tradition. The reason above is important, as audiences don't have a good idea of how this ghost/gnome/witch would typically behave, and it works well for building tension too. But another reason is that it's easy to remember. You get three times the story padding for only having to remember one short story and some minor variations. This makes the story easier to remember than non-repeating tales of the same length, both for professionals who collect as many stories as possible, and for people that pass a story on pretty much because they happened to remember it.

In art, there's a rule of thirds where putting items in the intersections between thirds-lines draws more attention and is more visually appealing than plonking them right in the center, which is considered boring. In design, particularly three-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 three elements are used widely in rhetoric, writing and myth: "Ready, aim, fire", "Veni, Vidi, Vici", "Lights, camera, action", "Reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic," "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 three grammatically and logically connected elements is known as a Tricolon. When the three 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 or 50, but not 35 or 70).

See also Basic Conflicts and other plot devices which often come in 3s or 7s, and Three Rules of Three, a wiki guideline.

Sub-tropes include:


    open/close all folders 

  • Nick At Nite has run commercials for itself, emphasizing this type of comedy bit and going so far as to call it 'the triple'.
  • "HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead." And its lesser-known sister ad: "Freedom from hemorrhoids, FREEdHEM hemorrhoid cream. Freedom from hemorrhoids, FREEdHEM hemorrhoid cream. Freedom from hemorrhoids, FREEdHEM hemorrhoid cream."
  • A Toyota commercial has a hybrid car speeding along with three black horses, three white horses, three hang-gliders, and three fighter jets to show that soft and edgy can get along.
  • A series of Warburton's Bakery adverts in the UK used an extremely long-burning (the last ad came two years after the first two, which were six months apart) version of "the third is the punchline". The first one had Sylvester Stallone approaching Jonathan Warburton to propose an action movie about bread delivery. The second had The Muppets approach him about a musical extravaganza featuring crumpets. Both ended with a somewhat gobsmacked Warburton endorsing the concepts. Then the third one had Peter Kay suggesting a Costume Drama about the company's origins. This time, Warburton calls security.
  • A commercial for Energizer batteries has a live-action animator drawing three cartoon rabbits that come to life; an overly-cutesy baby rabbit, a goofy-looking clumsy rabbit that trips over his own ears, and the Energizer Bunny himself. The animator doesn't like any of the three rabbits, and while the first two get erased by a mechanical eraser, the Energizer Bunny doesn't, as the Supervolt battery in the mechanical eraser runs out of power at that point.

  • Medici Chapels: The sculptures in the "New Sacristy" are grouped into three groups. Two for the tombs of the Medici brothers, with each brother being flanked by two Anthropomorphic Personifications, and one solely composed of Christian saints —the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Medicis' two patron saints. However, this latter group comes with a twist because the Virgin Mary is holding an infant Jesus, which means that said group is made of four characters instead of three.
  • The Last Supper: The paintings contains several notable appearances of the number three, perhaps reflecting the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
    • The apostles are grouped into four groups of three.
    • There are three windows in the room.
    • Christ is depicted in a triangle shape, with his hands and his head as the corners of the triangle.

    Asian Animation 
  • BoBoiBoy: In Season 2 episode 6, Fang knows, somehow, to take three of Yaya's cookies to feed Crazy Cat so that he will be stunned and BoBoiBoy's gang can get across Cowboy Pete Monday's Alley without it attacking them.

    Comic Books 
  • Sláine: Characters constantly refer to things in groups of three: three great silences, three sorrows, etc.
  • Nancy: The simplicity of Ernie Bushmiller's art depends in part on the principle of "the three rocks".
    Scott McCloud: Art Spiegelman explains how a drawing of three rocks in a background scene was Ernie's way of showing us there were some rocks in the background. It was always three. Why? Because two rocks wouldn't be "some rocks." Two rocks would be a pair of rocks. And four rocks was unacceptable because four rocks would indicate "some rocks" but it would be one rock more than was necessary to convey the idea of "some rocks."
  • Alan Moore repeatedly employs a 9-panel grid - three wide, three high - in most of his comics. While the format in itself obviously predates Moore, Moore was one of the first to combine it with the Beat panel, lending a certain rhythm and gravitas to even the most rote conversations.
  • The Mighty Thor: There are the Warriors Three, three heroic Asgardians — Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg — who are lifelong friends and fighting companions.
  • Trinity (2008) essentially established Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman as the center of the DC Universe. They've used the term "trinity" to refer to the three characters since. After the reboot, the first major crossover for the Justice League was the Trinity War, in which three different Leagues (the main Justice League, the Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark) first clash then unite, then break into three groups, each led by a different member of the "trinity" and accompanied by a different member of the "Trinity of Sin" (New 52 versions of The Question and The Phantom Stranger, and new character Pandora). The events of the "war" are revealed to be part of a plot by the Crime Syndicate, Mirror Universe versions of the Justice League from Alternate Universe Earth-3
  • Iznogoud: Iznogoud once bought a magic catalogue that allows him to obtain items from the future but cannot use it more than three times.
  • Superman:
    • Superman's Return to Krypton is divided into three acts: "Part I: Superman Meets Jor-El And Lara Again!", where Superman goes back into time and meets his birth parents; "Part II: Superman's Kryptonian Romance!", where Superman starts a relationship with actress Lyla Lerrol and fails to put together a planet-wide evacuation plan; and "Part III: The Surprise Of Fate!", where Superman resigns himself to dying when Krypton blows up, but then he ironically gets blasted into space.
    • The Last Days of Superman is divided into three parts: "Part I: Superman's Death Sentence!", "Part II: The Super-Comrades of All-Time!" and "Part III: Superman's Last Day of Life!"
    • In Supergirl story arc Day of the Dollmaker, the titular villain kidnaps three children before Catherine Grant realizes that a child kidnapper is sending her clues.
    • Let My People Grow! is divided into three parts: "Chapter One: Let My People Grow", "Chapter Two: The Lilliput Problem!" and "Chapter Three: All Creatures Great and Small...!"
    • The Leper from Krypton: As he is dying, Superman ponders he has only loved three women: Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris and Lois Lane.
    • The Death of Lightning Lad: In the second issue, the Legion of Super-Heroes interviews three applicants: Antennae Boy, Dynamo Kid and "Marvel Lad". The latter must past three initiation tests to become a full-fledged Legionnaire.
    • The Legion of Super-Heroes!: Superboy bumps into someone who knows his secret identity three times. He then meets three time-travelers, travels to the 30th century and undertakes three tests.
    • Supergirl's Three Super Girl-Friends
      • Supergirl meets three super-heroines who want her to join their super-team.
      • Triplicate Girl, who can split herself into three exact duplicates, makes her debut in this story.
      • Supergirl finds three long-lost artifacts.
    • In The Other Side of Doomsday, villain T.O. Morrow abducts three women: Linda Danvers, Iris Allen and Jean Loring.
    • The Life Story of Superman: Superman's origin story is divided into three chapters: "Planet On The Edge Of Oblivion!" (which narrates Krypton's destruction), "A Legend Is Born" (Superman's childhood and adolescency) and "Call Me Superman" (his adult career).
    • "Legion of Super-Heroes/Bugs Bunny Special": Bugs Bunny has three glowing special carrots which allow him to turn into Super-Bugs. He is forced to use them up through the story.
  • Batman: No Man's Land: The second issue has three interludes where a mugger unsuccessfully tries to hold up traders on their way to see the Penguin. His first intended victim walks away unmolested after realizing that the man's gun is empty, as if he had any valuable bullets, he wouldn't be wasting time trying to steal batteries. A passerby armed with a bow and arrow intervenes to protect his second intended victim (a young boy with bicycle tubes) in exchange for the boy becoming his trading partner. The third trader is Joker, and the mugger has just enough time to realize he's Mugging the Monster before becoming an Asshole Victim.

    Fan Works 
  • Abraxas (Hrodvitnon):
    Three is sacred.
    • There are also notably and precisely three Russian women who've been forcibly impregnated with Ghidorah hybrids, and they're all found together, all but gift-wrapped for the humans to find and bring back to civilization as part of the plan for the hybrids.
    • The effect is heightened in Ghidorah's backstory one-shot in Abraxas: Empty Fullness. It's revealed there that the aliens who originally turned Ghidorah into its current form (before Ghidorah turned on and destroyed them) made it a three-headed creature using three specimens in mimicry or mockery of an alien text called the Ghee'haszhra, which states, "[t]hree times".
  • The Bugger Anthology: "The Bitch Fight of Canary Wharf" has the word "bugger" uttered three times in response to someone getting identified: twice by a Dalek and Cyberman when they accidentally identify their respective races, and once by a Dalek when Rose points out the Doctor.
  • Calvin & Hobbes: The Series uses this sometimes, like how there are three suspects in "The Case of the Rogue Water Balloon".
  • Danganronpa: Memento Mori: The first execution is outright named "Death Penalty Trinity" — the blackened is thus subjected to three different traditional methods of execution one after another: first the gallows, then the electric chair, and finally the guillotine.
  • Dangerverse: Triples seem to have significance in the Founder's magic.
    • The Founder's Oath must be spoken three times to be binding.
    • Wish magic is set in motion with a three-part invocation ("so I speak, so I intend, and so let it be done").
    • Severus Snape is asked three times who could command him to forgive himself for his past sins.
    • James and Lily return from the grave to visit Harry three times.
  • In Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, Jacob calls Tia a "HALF-BREAD!" three times, while jumping up and down.
  • An invoked negative example from the Adventure Time fanfic Half Past Adventure: If Macy has three Imagine Spots, then she thinks she'll lose something important.
  • Hellsister Trilogy is divided into three story arcs: "Hellsister", "The Apokolips Agenda" and "Hellspawn". There are also three main villains: Satan Girl, Mordru and Darkseid.
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers fanfic Gankona, Unnachgiebig, Unità: Three main characters, three mean people, three people in a relationship.
  • In the second main story of Kara of Rokyn, Lex Luthor is aided by three female villains: his niece Nasthalthia, old Supergirl enemy Starfire -nothing to do with Teen Titan Starfire- and Wonder Woman villain Cyber.
  • At least suggested in Left Behind, as it would appear that there were three different versions of Crichton, D'Argo and Chiana created on Rohvu by Kaarvok's 'twinning' machine. Including the Crichton and Chiana that feature in the fic, Crichton knows for a fact that he saw Chiana on the transport pod back to Moya before she showed up behind him, and yet he found a dead version of her in a corridor during a search, he finds two different corpses of D’Argo while running through Rohvu, and is certain that he was only left behind because there was at least one version of him on the transport pod.
  • In Long Time No See, Asuka announces her third pregnancy to Shinji Ikari. Played for laughs when she says she is not naming it after him, and Shinji realizes she is referring to his old codename "Third Child".
    Asuka: "Either way, don't expect me to name it after you."
    Shinji: "Why should you...? Oh, because it's the 'Third'... (groaning) You know, you already had better jokes."
  • In the Hannah Montana fic "The Long Way"- when circumstances lead to Lilly joining Miley in the world where Miley was originally Hannah all the time- Lilly expresses concern that Miley's recent declaration of love for her was only because Lilly initially wished to be with Miley forever. However, Angel assures Lilly that love is one of three things nobody can wish for, the other two being killing people or bringing them back to life.
  • Riding a Sunset: A recording of Prowl using his sirens and shouting "Come out with your servos up!" is used three times. The first time, it's used by Bumblebee to scare off thieves that would've otherwise robbed Charlie's house. The second time, it's used by Jazz to scare off a bunch of thugs who were about to hurt Charlie (and possibly 'Bee). The third time, it isn't a recording, it's actually Prowl who's just arrived on Earth with Bulkhead and Hot Rod. They arrive just in time to save Brawn, Charlie, and her family from Polar Claw.
  • Sixes and Sevens: Three times the Faustian Queen offers Emily a boon. Three times Emily refuses. At least, that's how Emily remembers it - there was a fourth offer that Emily accepted to save her father, but the Faustian Queen used it to lay claim to Emily's firstborn and then blocked her memory of such a deal.
  • The Harry Potter fic "The World As We Knew It" sees Harry become part of an ancient magic known as an 'Aperio', where three different people independently make the same wish at the same time and are thus transferred into a new world where their wish has come true. In this case, Harry, Remus Lupin and Severus Snape all wished that the prophecy had never been made and James and Lily were still alive, taking them to a world where the Potters were never killed but Voldemort never fell.

  • A joke in 2009 uses the Rule of Three to explain the three close celebrity deaths that year.
    Farrah Fawcett died and went to heaven. Saint Peter said "You were very good on Earth, so you have been granted one wish." Farrah thought for a bit and said "I wish for the safety of all children on Earth." Half an hour later, Michael Jackson arrived in heaven.
    Michael Jackson was surprised to find himself in heaven, but even more surprised that he was once again black. "Saint Peter," he said, "I worked pretty hard to lighten my skin over the years. Can you fix it?" Half an hour later Billy Mays arrived in heaven with some OxiClean.
  • Jokes in general tend to make very heavy use of the Rule of Three, especially those following the "Blonde/Brunette/Redhead" or "Nationality/Nationality/Nationality" formula.
  • The sarcastic snowclone "My (whatever) is (good thing), yours is (not so good thing), his is (even worse thing)."

  • PROTIP: A trio of characters from different games is a standard Game Pro cover.

  • Bally's Dr. Dude requires the player to get the three Elements of Coolness (a Magnetic Personality, the Heart of Rock and Roll, and the Gift of Gab) three times before starting multiball.
  • Two examples in Junk Yard:
    • "Save the Girl" requires you to hit Spike three times.
    • Hitting the Time Machine and pressing both flipper buttons three times when the clock shows 3:33 starts a secret mode.
  • One of the tasks in The Party Zone is to "Eat, Drink, & B. Merry".
  • Many of the goals in America's Most Haunted require hitting a target three times.
  • In a more general sense, most pinball games made from the '70s onward default to three balls per game.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Professional Wrestling is fond of this in some forms, ranging from the three way dance 'Triple Threat' match (3 fighters) to audience chants; one of the most popular is to match 3 syllables (e.g. 'R V D! R V D!' for Rob Van Dam). The other popular chant format? Four syllables and five claps ('You're a loser!' * * *** ), which adds up to nine.
  • An infamous, horrifying 1981 match where El Santo suffered a heart attack against Los Misioneros de la Muerte, cemented three on three, which was already being established as Lucha Libre Internacional's most popular match type, as the main match associated with Mexican Lucha Libre. If a promotion has a "trios", "tercias" or "six man" division, it's probably due to LLI. Even when they don't, the wild three on three matches of trios like The Shield can ultimately be traced back to it.
  • Many a Power Stable, like nWo, began as and remained centered around a trio. Having at least three members also brings in the Freebird Rule, where a Power Stable wins the tag team belts and any two of them can defend it in a given match.
  • Ring of Honor celebrated its third anniversary with three back to back shows.
  • While there are many variations, it's common that a wrestling feud will consist of three matches. The wrestlers will trade wins in the first two matches, with the third as the blow off.
  • Every third anniversary year, Pro Wrestling Guerilla holds a show called Threemendous.
  • During The Authority angle, Triple H and his cohorts abused the Money in the Bank contract to get a champion under their control three times. The first time was at SummerSlam 2013, where Randy Orton cashed in on Daniel Bryan, the second was at WrestleMania 31, where Seth Rollins cashed in on Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, and the third time was at Survivor Series 2015, where Sheamus cashed in on Reigns.

  • Dead Ringers: Any time Andrew Neil (brought to you by Jim Henson's Children's Television Workshop) introduces his show, he lists two incredibly bizarre guests which usually aren't even human ("a jellyfish with an arts degree; Davros, creator of the Daleks"). The third is inevitably DIANE ABBOTT.
  • The character of Errol in The BBC series 15 Storeys High always answers a question truthfully, if asked it three times.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Ron White's recounting of the time he sued Sears for terrible service includes this line:
    Ron: I execute a left-hand turn out of the parking lot, and my left rear wheel falls off. It falls off. It FALLS THE FUCK OFF! Turning my van into a tripod, and spinning me into a level of pissed off I've never felt before!

    Theme Parks 
  • In the third version of Journey into Imagination, riders are supposed to be going on a tour of the Imagination Institute's labs based on the 5 senses. Due to Figment's antics, only 3 (Sound, Sight, and Smell) are visited before Dr. Channing decides to abandon the tour.

"That's a tree!
That's a house!
That's a pizza place!"

Alternative Title(s): Rule Of 3, Rule Of Threes


"What Strange Looking Carrots"

As the short takes place in three locations, this comes up a lot, such as Bugs doing some less-than-subtle Foreshadowing.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / RunningGag

Media sources: