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"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
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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 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 almost unusual to find a folktale that does not incorporate the Rule of Three in some form. This may be an artifact of the oral tradition, in which the stock formula of the first, second, and third attempts makes the story easier to remember.

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'. 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 

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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.)

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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. Not to be confused with 4, unless you're counting elements, bodily fluids, and other dimensions.note 

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Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • It's a general law of advertising that the product will be mentioned at least three times, to ensure it lodges firmly in the brain.
  • 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 John 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.

    Art 
  • The Last Supper: The painting 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Characters in Sláine constantly refer to things in groups of three — three great silences, three sorrows, etc.
  • The irreducible simplicity of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy depends in part on the principle of "the three rocks".
    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." —Scott McCloud
  • In a somewhat similar vein, 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 in his stories.
  • In Marvel Comics, there are the Warriors Three, three heroic Asgardians — Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg — who are lifelong friends and fighting companions.
  • DC Comics series 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.

    Fan Works 

    Jokes 
  • 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)."

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

    Pinball 
  • 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.

    Radio 
  • 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!


 
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Alternative Title(s): Rule Of 3, Triforce

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DuckTales (2017)

An illustration of the Rule of Three in action, by way of a magic gong. From "Woo-Hoo!" (S01E01)

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Main / RuleOfThree

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