Writing Advice: The Many Faces of the “Rule of Three”

jnl-redhatWith Valentine’s Day close approaching, most of you are thinking of two: yourself and that special someone.

But, Golden Girls fans might be thinking of three, due to one of the most quotable quotes of the series, from an episode called “Valentine’s Day.”

CondomsIn a pharmacy, the three youngest Girls are preparing for a romantic weekend with three men. Blanche hints that they should take “protection” with them. After Rose guesses incorrectly what Blanche means (three times!) Dorothy blurts out:

Condoms, Rose! Condoms, condoms, condoms!

That thrice repeated emphasis is an example of what the Romans called omne trium perfectum, meaning “every three is perfect.” We see this pattern both in literature and the visual arts. In photography and painting, it is often called the Rule of Thirds. You can actually see this in the Golden Girls gif at right, wherein Dorothy is the middle third of the image.

In writing, it is called the Rule of Three. But, although all threes may be perfect, not all threes are the same. For the benefit of my readers who are also writers, I want to discuss the various forms of the Rule of Three and, in honor of season three of Black Sails, I’ll include a few examples from that popular and well-written series.

Emphatic – This is the simplest type, the type represented in the Golden Girls example. You simply take a word (or an idea expressed with different words) and repeat it three times.

Another popular version is often associated with Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies), even though it doesn’t appear in this form in the book: “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” We also see this in the proverbial three rules of real estate: location, location, location!

(Or, as comedian Dmitri Martin repurposed the proverb, how to turn a toy into an adult toy.)

The emphatic three is so simple and obvious, I won’t spend much time on it. Suffice to say: emphasis, emphasis, emphasis!

The tricolor flag of Mexico

Definitive -The definitive three does not aim to emphasize a single idea, but to round out a set that defines some referenced entity. The Greeks called it hendiatris (ἓν διὰ τρεῖς) meaning, “one through three.”

All tricolor flags fall into this category, three colored bands that are emblematic of a national identity. Even the American flag, which is technically not a tricolor, is often referenced as the “Red, White, and Blue.”

Likewise, all tripartite mottoes, like the French republican “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” and the US Navy’s “Honor, Courage, Commitment.”

Or, as comedian Winston Churchill summed up the British Navy: “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.” Not far off from Dmitri Martin’s idea, really.

We see this formula everywhere. The US Declaration of Independence speaks of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Men in wanton revelry have long spoken of “Wine, Women, and Song.” Or, as Conan the Barbarian (in the eponymous film) responded to the question of what is good in life: “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of the women.”

Musicians gave us “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll.” Shakespeare’s apparition urged Macbeth (after issuing an emphatic three of his own name): “Be bloody, bold, and resolute!” Julius Cæsar summed up his quick victory against Pharnaces II: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Or, more eloquently, in Latin “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”

The definitive three is a powerful device. Writers should read, heed, and write.

The rule of three in Black Sails
The rule of three in Black Sails

Comprehensive – More powerful than the definitive three is the comprehensive three, which aims not to define or represent some entity, but to encompass all possibilities.

Most often we see this as a chronological triptych encompassing the entirety of time. Consider the three ghosts who visit Ebenezer Scrooge: the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Consider the classic trinity of femininity: the maiden, mother, and crone. And, for masculinity: the boy, the warrior, and the sage elder.

Or consider the racist rhetoric of George Wallace, which imagined Jim Crow into eternity: “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!”

Sometimes the comprehensive three draws a perimeter around all possibilities. The three bears who confront Goldilocks are Papa Bear who was too much, Mama Bear who was too little, and Baby Bear who was just right. The audience facing Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony are wrapped up as “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” The Christian dogmatic Trinity expresses the godhead as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

An intriguing example from anthropology is the tragic hero of Indo-European religion who offends all three functions of that culture’s mythology: the economic, the martial, and the political.

I promised examples from Black Sails, and here is the first, from Episode 1 of Season 3. The presumptive British governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, is threatening to send the chief fence of the pirate haven of Nassau, Eleanor Guthrie, to the noose. She explains why he can’t do this:

Because you don’t know that Samuel Wayne has never once paid for a drink. Because you don’t know that the Boyd brothers can’t be in the presence of anyone from Captain Moulton’s crew. Because you don’t know which of the street merchants is in the pocket of the brothel madam. You don’t know. You don’t know. You don’t know. But I do.

Her second trio is emphatic, but her first trio is comprehensive.

How is that first trio comprehensive rather than merely definitive of Nassau? Because, it echoes those three functions that, in myth, compose all of human society. Samuel Wayne’s free ride is economic. The Boyd brothers’ animosity is martial. The brothel madam’s network is political.

Intriguingly, Rogers turns the technique back on Guthrie with his own comprehensive triplet:

I need to know everything you know of Nassau. If you withhold, if you manipulate, if you lie, you die.

Withholding violates the economy of their agreement, manipulation violates their aggressive (i.e., martial) alliance against the pirates, and lying violates the politics of such an agreement.

It is important that he meets her comprehensive triplet with another, because each character is warning the other not to be the tragic figure who offends all three functions.

Elliptical – My last example of the Rule of Three represents in narrative the same dynamic as the ellipsis (…) does in punctuation. It indicates some ongoing pattern, the full importance of which is left unspoken or, at most, hinted at.

An excellent example from Black Sails (S1 E3) occurs when Jack Rackham is trying to convince Mr. Gates that he might not be fit to captain his own ship in the hunt for the treasure galleon, Urca de Lima.

It won’t take much for you to lose that new crew of yours. You may have them fooled now, but at sea? Perhaps you’ll oversleep the bells and need to be roused. Perhaps you’ll be handed the glass and need help with where to point it. Perhaps you’ll slip and fall and that knee of yours will finally give out.

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps no one will say anything, they respect you to much for that. But the moment the Urca looms close and the first shot is fired in anger, you know exactly what every last man in that crew will be thinking: Christ Almighty, I wish we had a captain thirty years younger.

The first “perhaps” trio is definitive; it is emblematic of the sort of things that might indicate Gates’s incompetence. The second iteration appears to be emphatic at first, but then Rackham tacks on a qualifier that leaves Gates to fill in what might happen while his crew is being polite, what might happen to make them wish they had someone else as their leader.

Translation: “Perhaps they’ll be nice to your face, but …” Then, he fills in that gap with the likely result.

Another good example from Black Sails (S3 E2) occurs when Eleanor Guthrie is explaining to Woodes Rogers why her former lover Charles Vane should be singled out among the pirate captains of Nassau:

You know these men’s names. You know the things they have done. But I know them. [An introductory triplet implies something unknown.]

I know Flint is dangerous, but he can be reasoned with. I know Rackham is devious, but all he cares about is his legacy. And, because I have history with Charles Vane, I know him most of all. [A second iteration of the elliptical three: Rogers does not know what Guthrie knows.]

I am all too aware what he is capable of destroying when he sets his mind on it. I underestimated him and I lost my father. The Lord Governor Ashe underestimated him and Charlestown burned. What is it you would like to have him take from you?

The second triplet fills dual purpose, elliptical and comprehensive. In the ancient tripartite scheme, the economic function included farming and—through analogy with the fertility of the earth—sexual relations and their legacy. Flint is presented as a violent, martial problem. Rackham as a devious, political problem. And the “history” Eleanor had with Vane? Sexual, rounding out the three functions.

Likewise, the way Eleanor is proposing to deal with each of these pirates shifts the three functions while keeping all three. The solution to Flint’s martial threat is political. The solution to Rackham’s political threat is his legacy, firmly in the economic/fertility function. And the solution to her former lover’s threat? The violence of the noose.

Despite this comprehensive tour de force in the central trio, all three are also elliptical, a triple set of elliptical trios with a single reality being pointed toward: Rogers’ ignorance of the threat Vane poses. It is a masterpiece of writing that applies the Rule of Three to the Rule of Three.

Have fun using the Rule of Three in your own writing!


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