The Rule of Three

A psychological trick to enhance your stories

Hey — it’s Nathan.

I’m not a marketer. But this idea from David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, forced me to change how I go about writing as a profession.

He says, “You’re marketing to a moving parade, not a standing army.”

So, I wanted to re-share a piece from 7 months ago. It’s one I refer to often and one of the most popular ones I’ve written. Hope you enjoy.

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Three years ago, Ana Fabrega was a teacher who wanted to write about education on the internet. But she had a tiny audience and no idea where to start.

Today, she’s on the C-suite of an ed-tech startup, writes to an audience of 150,000+, and just released her first book The Learning Game through one of the most respected publishing houses in the world.

Her writing journey started with David Perell’s Write of Passage.

And on Tuesday evening, David’s running a free workshop on How To Start Writing Online. If you’re interested, join me and 100s of others at the free workshop.

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Humans love patterns. We’re drawn to them. We learn from them. We remember them.

A 2012 study by Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor found:

The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect of learning and is one of the defining features of human experience. Once we reach adulthood, we have decades of intensive learning behind us, where the discovery of thousands of useful combinations of features, as well as combinations of combinations and so on, has collectively generated an amazingly rich, hierarchical model of the world.

Daniel Bor

Tldr: Your brain is a pattern-completion machine.

What the heck does that have to do with writing and storytelling?

The number three is the smallest number of elements needed to create a pattern.

  • Two? One too few.

  • Three? Spot on.

  • Four? That’s a lot to remember.

See, three bullet points look natural. But this idea doesn’t just apply to bullet-point structure.

The Rule of Three is a storytelling principle that says people better understand concepts, situations, and ideas in groups of three.

Researchers like Bor have proven it works on, you guessed it, three levels:

  • Sentences

  • Situations

  • Stories

They’re right. The most common storytelling structures are split into threes:

But why’s it so effective?

Threes let you shape your story. Any less, there’s no pattern. But, add more than three, and both the skill required to tell the story and the attention required to understand it, go way up. More than three is harder on both the storyteller and the audience. So, as it’s the lowest number of elements required to create a pattern, three becomes the go-to for many writers.

Connect two points, you have a line. Connect three points, you might have a line. Or a squiggle. Or a triangle. Now, it depends on how you, the storyteller, connect them.

Rule of Three

3 techniques to use The Rule of Three today:

Tricolon – The repetition of similar words or phrases three times in one sentence, or in three back-to-back-to-back sentences, to create a parallel pattern.

  • “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” – Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens

Three-part structure – James Clear calls his newsletter "3-2-1." He organizes his writing into three sections, and it's become a popular way to format newsletters.

Here’s a great advertisement from Marketing Examples showing the power of The Rule of Three:

Hendiatris – A hugely popular technique in speeches and advertising, hendiatris means using three individual words together to convey one idea:

  • “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

  • “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.”

  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Notice how the most important word hits you at the end of each of those phrases. That’s not an accident. In their legendary book Elements of Style, William Strunk and EB White say:

The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end… This principle applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.

The Elements of Style

The Rule of Three may be the most practical rule in all of writing. Proven by science, effective in practice, and simple to implement.

Pay attention to good writing, and you see threes everywhere.

Have an awesome weekend,


Nathan’s Notes

5 things I found interesting this week:

A Sentence I Wish I Wrote

One of the funnier lines I’ve ever come across. If you’re the 23rd reply with the correct book, I’ll send you a copy of Save The Cat.

The story so far: In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been regarded as a bad move.

Want to go deeper on storytelling?

1. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (300+ students).

2. To get ahead of the AI curve, check out 90-Minute Novel. It’s a 90-minute mini-course digging into writing fiction with AI. Prompts, processes, and more. We had 180+ students in the live session and it was awesome.

3. If you’re interested in starting or taking your newsletter to the next level, check out The Newsletter Playbook. 100 students and a 9.1 rating.

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