Follow TV Tropes

Following

Rule Of Three / Literature

Go To

The Rule of Three in literature.



  • The title character of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist believes that anything that happens twice WILL happen again. He is not proven wrong.
  • Isaac Asimov:
      Advertisement:
    • Three Laws of Robotics.
    • The Gods Themselves has several instances of this. Asimov wrote this novel because of complaints that his stories never featured aliens or sex; so he wrote a story full of aliens, sex, and alien sex. The novel has three parts, the aliens are trigendered, and the first two parts end with somebody despairing that the short-sighted and selfish actions described will doom our universe. The third part resolves the crisis by finding a way to avert this.
  • Humorous uses of this rule in the Aunt Dimity series include people having to get Lori's attention by saying her name three times, each one progressively louder (Dimity has to write her efforts, the third and last one in ALL CAPS). Also, in the fire alarm farce late in Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree, among those gathered in the entrance hall of Willis Sr.'s house is an elderly woman who sees no need to evacuate since she lit the fire in question. Willis Sr. steps forward to inquire who she is, and the Donovans burst in:
    "Aunt Augusta!" Deirdre cried.
    "Aunt Augusta?" said Willis Sr.
    "Aunt Augusta," Declan said, with a weary sigh.
  • Advertisement:
  • In Beowulf, Beowulf fights three monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the Dragon.
  • In Beyond The Wall by Ambrose Bierce, Dampier heard a knocking on the wall three times. The firs time he was skeptical, the second time he answered the knocking, the morning after the third time he was discovered dead.
  • In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present do not change Scrooge's mind. It is the third ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be, who convinces Scrooge to change his ways.
    • Not entirely true. By the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present's visit, Scrooge is shown a pair of street urchins freezing to death and shows compassion for them, only to have his earlier harsh words thrown back in his face. The Rule Of Three still applies to the story structure, though.
    • Only in certain movie adaptations. In the original story Scrooge is slowly repenting of his ways from the very first ghost, and has fully repented by the end of the second. He even begins his time with the third by stating that he is a different man than he was, and is eager for the spirit to guide him further. Unfortunately, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come isn't the friendly sort.
    • Advertisement:
    • In a 2000 television adaptation starring Ross Kemp, re-telling the story in a modern London estate, the Rule Of Three applies even more — Eddie Scrooge is stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop, as after each spirit he gets to re-live Christmas Eve again and try to change things. After the first spirit, he hasn't changed a bit. After the second, he's becoming a better person but is still arrogant his showing off the "new" him to his nurse ex-girlfriend results in a young homeless person dieing, as he went to get his ex rather than simply call an ambulance to help the person. After the third ghost, he changes his ways for real and does kind acts without showing off — including calling an ambulance for the homeless person. Also, Rule Of Three applies even more than the ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past is Eddie's father, the Ghost of Christmas Present is Jacob Marley himself and the Ghost of Christmas Future is the son he could have if he changes his ways.
  • The entirety of Wil McCarthy’s novel The Collapsium is structured this way. It’s broken into three “books,” Once Upon a Matter Crushed, Twice Upon a Star Imperiled and Thrice Upon a Schemer’s Plotting, and each begins with a nearly identical setup and set of challenges for the main character. But with each iteration, the complexity of the story takes a step up, until the final section, where everything goes to hell and plot threads from all three sections pay off. By the author’s own admission, the novel was written as a modern hard-SF fairy tale, so Rule Of Three is used very deliberately.
  • Cthulhu Mythos: Hastur can be summoned by being named thrice.
  • The three doors in The Dark Tower book The Drawing of the Three, plus the three personalities within the body of Odetta: Odetta Holmes herself, Detta Walker, and, finally, Susannah Dean.
  • In Devon Monk's Dead Iron, LeFel tries to invoke this on Jeb Lindson — he shouldn't have to kill him more than three times.
  • The second Deltora Quest series has the Piran Pipe which is divided into three pieces among the three tribes following their favourite candidate for their leader The Piper. They conveniently find three different islands under the earth to live in. There's also Lief, Barda and Jasmine (the Power Trio).
  • Diana Tregarde: In one book, a new magic user of Native American heritage was surprised he had to do something 4 times where the Europeans were equally bound to do the same thing 3 times. The 4 directions, donchaknow!
  • Discworld
    • The witches coven in Lancre consists of the Maiden, the Mother, and the... er, Other One, much to Granny Weatherwax's indignation.
    • Tiffany Aching's attempt at making a shamble (sort of a witch's Swiss Army Knife). Makes one... fails. Makes another one... fails. On her third attempt, she fails again, and realises that it was stupid to rely on the rule of three, since things don't happen like that in reality.
    • There's also troll counting, which appears to go by threes:
    One, two, many, many-one, many-two, many-many, many-many-one, many-many-two, many-many-many, LOTS!''
  • Dante's The Divine Comedy: In Inferno, Satan has three faces, eternally chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Also, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise all have 9 levels, grouped into threes. In Hell, three circles apiece are devoted to sins of Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud; in Purgatory, atonement is performed for sins that involve Bad Love (Pride, Envy, and Wrath), too little love (Sloth), and too much love (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust); and in Paradise, saints dwell in nine concentric spheres that surround the Earth, beyond which God lives. The Divine Comedy actually contains many examples of the Rule of Three, and other numerology. For instance it is usually divided into three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) of 33 canti each plus a prologue.
    • The play itself is composed of Terza Rima.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • All fae are bound by whatever they say 3 times. Harry mentions it several times throughout the books.
    • Commands and denials also work in threes.
    • The Goats Gruff are a subversion of the rule in Dresden, and it surprises him greatly.
      • The first goats gruff were quite small and attacked him at Michael's.
      • The second goats gruff were adult human sized, and attacked with Uzis.
      • The third goat gruff was huge and fought by himself.
      • Eldest gruff was fairly small and wizened, but an extremely competent wizard/sorcerer in his own right.
    • In Cold Days, Harry commands an entity using his own name 3 times, to reveal itself.
      • That entity itself is part of a trio.
    • In earlier books and his dealings with the Denarians, Harry denies them three times. On days when he's stressed and tired, the exchange works as "Reasonable request" from the Denarian, followed by Harry saying "No, no, no for a third time."
    • Also, there are three main Vampire Courts (not counting the one in Asia). As of the most recent books, apparently Harry caused the extinction of the entire Red Court of vampires.
      • Well, after the events in Changes the destruction of the Red Court resets it to three vampire courts.
      • The White Court is composed of three major houses.
    • The Summer and Winter factions of the fae are each ruled by a Queen, a Lady, and a Crone. Also there are Three factions of Fae: Winter, Summer, and the Wyldfae.
    • There are three Knights of the Cross, with their three holy swords.
    • The events of Dead Beat involve three necromancer disciples of Kemmler trying to find the Word of Kemmler.
  • In Rebecca Lickiss' Eccentric Circles, Malraux cheerfully explains why there are three of them — the youth, the father figure, the old geezer.
  • In Alethea Kontis's Enchanted, it's Sunday's third kiss that qualifies as True Love's Kiss.
  • In the classic MSTing of The Eye of Argon, Mike and the bots riff:
    Mike: When I think of wisdom, I think of three names: Solomon; Confucius; Grignr.
  • In Firebird, Ilya encounters the Katschei three times, and the third time kills him.
  • Several examples in the Harry Potter canon:
    • Harry, Ron, and Hermione form a Power Trio, whilst Malfoy is always flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. In the seventh book, Luna, Neville, and Ginny make up their own trio.
    • The Triwizard Tournament is traditionally disputed by three champions, but in the fourth book it's subverted since Harry is an unexpected and unprecedented fourth competitor.
    • The founders of three of the four houses welcome students of all types (the fourth one abandoned the school and left a monster as a parting gift because he wanted it to be pure bloods only); in the seventh book, students from three of the four houses are La Résistance and hiding in the Room of Requirement (the fourth one is Les Collaborators and can't or won't join them), three of the four founders had their possessions made into Horcruxes, whereas the fourth owned something that can destroy them, and three of the four houses are seen fighting in the Battle of Hogwarts (the fourth is sent to the dungeons, although their head professor does battle).
    • The prophecy that intertwines the fates of Harry and Voldemort has this passage: "...Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies —"
    • The symbol of the Deathly Hallows (Of which there are three) is triangular. The Hallows are: the Resurrection Stone, the Invisibility Cloak, and the Elder Wand. They were created by the three Peverall brothers: the eldest was killed for the wand, the middle killed himself to be with his dead wife, and the youngest lived to old age by "hiding from Death" with the cloak. In the movie the first two brothers are mostly silhouettes while the third brother is (more or less) fully lit.
    • There are three significant incidents where Harry violates, or is accused of violating, a law against using magic during the holidays while underage. The first time, Dobby does it to embarrass him in front of his Uncle Vernon, who proceeds to lock him in his room using his connections after Harry ends up with a warning letter regarding the incident. The second time, Harry does so in an unconscious reaction to a Your Mom joke from Aunt Marge, only for the Minister of Magic himself to let it slide on the grounds that a manhunt for an alleged dangerous wizard is currently taking place and even underage wizards needed to do everything they could and knew how to to defend themselves, up to and including the use of magic during the holidays. Only the third time, when Harry summons his Patronus to protect his cousin Dudley from Dementors sicced upon them by Dolores Umbridge, does he get into any real trouble for it, but he's bailed out at his trial by none other than Dumbledore, whose defense of him plays a major role in his acquittal on all counts.
  • The Hobbit: "Third time pays all."
    • Other Tolkien examples: there are three Silmarils, three Elven Rings of Power, three races that got Rings of Power, three groupings of Elves of the Light, three ancient tribes of noble Men, three archaic clans of Hobbits, and three survivor states of Númenor (Arnor, Gondor, and Umbar). Melkor disrupts the Music of the Ainur thrice. Galadriel refused Fëanor's request for a lock of hair thrice, and in The Lord of the Rings gives Gimli three hairs when he asked for just one.
    • There are also nine Nazgûl. Nine is thrice three, and a very important number in Norse Mythology.
  • The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins loves her powers of three. There are three books. Each book is divided into three parts. Each part contains nine (3x3) chapters.
  • "What I tell you three times is true", from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll.
  • A story by Raymond F. Jones in the February 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction was titled "I Tell You Three Times", and related to computer controls.
  • In King Crow, the hero is visited by his corvid helper three times.
  • The Kingkiller Chronicle. Though seven is really the Arc Number of the series, 3 also carries some import:
    • Giving three gifts to a tinker often heralds good fortune. Heroes in stories often receive three gifts from tinkers/benefactors.
    • There is an idiomatic expression "I am telling you three times" which conveys deadly seriousness.
    • And of course: "There are three things all wise men fear"
  • In one Damon Knight story, one of the protagonists hires himself three bodyguards because "one cannot be trusted; two would probably conspire; but three can, with a minimum of effort, be kept in a state of mutual suspicion".
  • Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun features an in-character subversion. Alun ab Owyn, who comes from a culture that is very big on the Rule of Three, hears a creature roar two times. When it doesn't roar a third, he's surprised, until he realizes that triads are a human invention, and unrelated to ancient monsters.
  • In Sci-fi story "a little lubricant" (yes, ahoy Double Entendre) the third spaceship makes it back to Earth.
  • The fourth Mary Poppins book begins by telling readers to regard the stories within as Interquels to the first three books, because "three is a lucky number."
  • In Master of Five Magics and its sequels, sorcerers must recite a spell three times to make it work, and each recitation is more difficult to enunciate than the last.
  • In Teresa Frohock's Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Lucian denies Catarina three times. Rachael specifically points this out to Caleb: It's important.
  • Moby-Dick has three threes: The chapter The Chase — Third Day marks the end of the book. Furthermore, there are three mates aboard the Pequod, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask; and three harpooners, Queequeg, Daggoo and Tashtego.
  • In The Neverending Story Atreyu must pass three gates to reach the southern Oracle. (In the movie the third gate is left out and the first replaced with one that shoots laser beams. duh.)
  • In The Night Angel Trilogy lessons at The Chantry (a women's school of magic) are taught in threes, supposedly for ease of recall.
  • Nina Tanleven: Dolores Smiley took the words "What I tell you three times is true." from The Hunting of the Snark very seriously as a child, and so, when she wanted her mother to believe her, would always make her statement three times. Mrs. Smiley also used it occasionally, including in her farewell letter. It proves the key to letting her move on.
  • It's also the command for Gay Deceiver to store an instruction in permanent memory in The Number of the Beast (1980), by Robert A. Heinlein. Based on the design philosophy that any machine or computer your life depends on should have triple redundant fail safes. The 'tell you three times' protocol was admittedly a lazy shorthand in violation of his own principle. Zeb demonstrated himself what a bad practice it was by using it to execute commands faster than they can be given consideration, whereas three honestly separate steps may have prevented him from jumping the gun.
    "The [spaceship's] new computer was of the standard "I-tell-you-three-times" variety, a triple brain each third of which was capable of solving the whole problem; if one triplet failed, the other two would outvote it and cut it off from action, permitting thereby at least one perfect landing and a chance to correct the failure. — The Rolling Stones (1952)
  • In Seanan McGuire's October Daye novel Rosemary And Rue, when Toby is contemplating a key that leaves her with a murder without a motive, a curse without a cure, and a key without a lock, she thinks of the importance of threes to the fae.
  • Lampshaded and made an explicit magical rule in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, where the number three is sacred (three Furies, three Fates, three sons of Kronos atop three thrones), and so Half-Blood heroes going on quests are allowed only two companions. Breaking this is seen to invite trouble.
  • Diana Wynne Jones's book Power of Three has this in spades, unsurprisingly. The main characters are three siblings; there are three peoples living on the Moor — Lymen, Dorig and Giants; there are three Powers, Sun, Moon and Earth. The children's father performed three tasks to win their mother, and there are three exchanges of gold collars before the conflict between the peoples can be resolved.
  • The absurdist Holy Book Principia Discordia is based on a Rule of Five, which bleeds over into such works of Discordian fiction as Illuminatus!.
  • In the Rainbow Magic series, Special Edition books have three magical objects to find.
  • The alien race (dubbed the Ramans) that created the gargantuan space object in Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke apparently do everything in threes — triple motifs litter it. (It is implied they had three hands, and presumably also three legs). The last line of the novel uses this for a stinger. Years later, this fact served as a handy Sequel Hook for Clarke when he decided to let Gentry Lee write follow-ups.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms didn't stop at the title for this one:
    • The best known example would be the three heroes Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who not only became best friends but blood brothers.
    • Liu Bei would later have to make three separate visits in order to convince the tactical sage Zhuge Liang to join them.
    • Guan Yu would later become leader of his own three man team, with Guan Ping and Zhou Cang.
    • Averted with Sun Quan, who's leading a nation while burdened by a legacy left behind by his father Sun Jian and elder brother Sun Ce, both of whom are dead. His close confidante Zhou Yu and sister Sun Shangxiang may constitute a new three in formation.
  • Dennis Dutton might have some good points about the flaws in Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots[1], but he really shows his ignorance of tropes when he tries to attack Booker's use of the Rule Of Three:
    Dutton: ...while there are three bears, three chairs and three bowls of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears,* there are actually four characters. The story would better support Booker's theory were it "Goldilocks and the Two Bears".
  • A Song of Ice and Fire's Arc Number is usually seven, but the Rule Of Three still pops up a few times.
    • Jaqen H'ghar owes Arya three life debts, and in true folktale fashion she wastes the first two on trivial vendettas and makes creative use of the last one to get what she really wants.
    • Runs deep in the Daenerys chapters. She's the last of three children, she has three dragon eggs, three handmaids, and three bloodriders, etc etc. When she is scouting out from Vaes Tolloro, she sends each of her three bloodriders in a different direction. The first two come back empty-handed, the last one takes a long time but ultimately returns with three emissaries from Qarth, a city ruled by three major guilds...
    • Daenerys is betrayed thrice, and later on attacks three cities before settling down in the third.
    • Amongst the Night Watch, three blasts on the horn is the ultimate Oh, Crap! signal: The Others are coming.
    • Anne Groell, GRRM's editor, revealed in an interview that he utilizes a three-fold method of foreshadowing major plot twists and events: "The first, subtle hint for the really astute readers, followed later by the more blatant hint for the less attentive, followed by just spelling it out for everyone else. It’s a brilliant strategy, and highly effective." Fans also observe that he intentionally subverts this pattern, having the third instance stray from the pattern to surprise the reader.
    • King Stannis's supporters chant "One god! One realm! One king!" which sounds like the old French slogan "One king, one law, one faith" or the Nazi Germany slogan "Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!"
  • Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm novel On the Razor's Edge opens with the observation that it starts with three, because in these matters there are always three.
  • "I tell you three times" is an override command to the supercomputer in the science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner.
  • Stardust: The King of Stormhold has three remaining sons. Also subverts the youngest brother convention by making him pure evil, and the oldest a caring and decent man. The middle brother is a useless sex maniac. The youngest son is also the Seventh Son. Also subverted in the film in that the King has four remaining sons. One is Too Dumb to Live, and is quickly pushed out of the tower by his brother, who has an eye for opportunity.
  • Lampshaded in Sergey Lukyanenko's The Stars Are Cold Toys by an alien living computer who wonders about the human fascination with the number three. The humans are stumped, and the best explanation they can come up with is "two is not enough, and four is too much." Surprisingly, the alien is satisfied with the answer.
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch, the number three appears to have considerable significance for the cultures involved with the Wormhole Aliens; the Eav'oq, the Bajorans, and the Ascendants (who themselves make three, obviously). Connected to this, we have the trio of the Voice, the Hand and the Fire. Further, there are nine orbs (three times three), and nine Emissaries. The Wormhole Aliens certainly like the number three, though for what reason (other than this trope) is as yet unclear. Finally, the Hebitians, a race of Precursors on Cardassia, also demonstrate a great love of the number. This may not be coincidental; frequent hints that Hebitian culture is connected to that of the Bajorans suggest we have a whole interconnected spiritual community valuing the rule of three.
  • In Stranger in a Strange Land, the Martians have a number system based on powers of three; they also have three stages of life.
  • Though the Winds worshiped by the Kantri number four, the Lady Shia worshiped by humans of Tales of Kolmar has three aspects of the same being. At the end of Song in the Silence, Lanen thinks she has to deny Akhor three times in order to save him.
  • The Three Musketeers; except there's actually four of them after the protagonist joins the original trio.
  • In Edward Ormondroyd's Time at the Top Susan Shaw receives three trips to the past after helping an elderly woman. Since said woman vaguely mentioned that she gets "only three" without specifying three what, she initially wonders if she's been granted Three Wishes.
  • The Tripods series has the Masters with a lot of threes-three legs, three tentacles, three eyes, plus the eponymous three-legged vehicles and their three domed cities. In the television series, the caps are shown as three-sided/triangular as well. There are also three protagonists most of the time. Will is always the main character, but at first, he's traveling with his cousin, Henry, and Jean-Paul/'Beanpole', the boy they meet in France. Later, Will, Beanpole and another boy, Fritz, become the more important trio (though Henry returns in the climax).
  • Twilight:
    Bella: About three things I was absolutely positive: First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him, and I didn't know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • In Graham McNeill's Ultramarines novel The Killing Ground, the Grey Knights subject Uriel and Pasanius to three tests of whether they are tainted.
    • In James Swallow's Blood Angels spinoff story "The Returned", Tarikus is subjected to three tests of whether he is tainted. They are explicitly billed as tests of his mind, body, and soul.
    • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Only In Death, "A traditional Tanith toast took three parts." So Larkin and Rawne toast "Old Ghosts", "Staying alive", and "Ibram Gaunt".
  • “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." (H G Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898), opening paragraph). "How beautifully underplayed is that adjective ‘unsympathetic’." (Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree p. 152).
  • The third Warrior Cats series is called Power of Three, and has three protagonists.
    • And their names have three syllables each.
    • Featuring three chosen ones. Although there turns out to be a fourth.


Top

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

/

Media sources:

/

Report