Rules of Three, Leave Them Be

I use Grammarly for english proofreading because I just had to tell my writing student that she shouldn’t suggest “razing the kids” in her essay.

Generally speaking, I’m not a believer in all those “rules for writing” that you read about.  From “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’,” to “write what you know,” most of them are made to be broken. But I confess there’s one type of rule that I’ve come to rely on both in my own writing and my teaching: the rule of three. We know three is a powerful number: three wishes, three kings, three bears. But I’m continually surprised at how helpful such a simple little number can be for writers.

I distinctly remember learning my first rule of three from my grad-school mentor while I was in the middle of writing my first nonfiction book. One of my characters had earned a knighthood for rebuilding South Africa after the Boer War, long before his role in my story. But it might still be important. How much did I need to know about the Boer War? While I was on the phone, pacing back and forth in my kitchen, my mentor, herself a presidential biographer, handed down what seemed to be a secret from heaven. She said that for this kind of “background” topic, she tries to find at least three sources, of substantial length, ideally from different perspectives: left, right, and center;  ancient, recent, and modern; popular, journalistic, academic. Then scan through them to get the general idea of what you’re talking about.

In my role as a writing tutor with City University of New York undergrads, I am able to return the favor of comfort and structure that my mentor provided me. When I see students struggling to write your basic five-paragraph analytical essay, I tell them, “As a rule of thumb, I like to think of the rule of three: Your thesis statement should have three parts, because that gives you three body paragraphs.” Usually I say this to them when they already have two ideas and think they are done. But one is not enough, two is a debate, a duel, and three is just right.

Thinking about this topic, I despaired because I thought I only had two rules of three to discuss, and that would completely defeat my point about the comforting proportions and legitimating structure of the number three. Then I realized that the most basic “rule” of storytelling is also a rule of three. Your story has to have a beginning, middle, and end. My junior-high English teacher told us this, and I remember thinking it was the stupidest rule ever: how could anything NOT have a beginning, middle, and end? But I’ve since come to see this rule as an elegant distillation of narrative.

A beginning is different from a middle, which is different from the end. That means something has to change, twice, for a story to be complete. And change over time is what distinguishes what Vivian Gornick calls a “situation” from a “story.” If you just have “this happened,” you just have an event, a beginning, and not a story. If you just have “I learned this,” you just have an end, a pronouncement, not a story. Frequently we have middles by themselves, “I was conflicted.” But it takes “This happened; I was conflicted; I learned this” to make a story. One, two, three.

Prescriptive thinking doesn’t always make for the best writing. I’ve found, however, that the rule of three is flexible enough to allow the creativity that’s necessary in all good writing, but structured enough to assuage the all too common anxiety of writers and storytellers who want to do it all, know it all, and tell it all. You don’t need everything, just three things.

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