The Rule of Three

A sneaky powerful cognitive trick to make your stories more memorable

Hey – Nathan here.

Let’s start with a game. Fill in the blanks:

  • Veni. Vidi. __.

  • Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of __.

  • Tall, dark, and __.

Did you get at least one? Maybe even two? Each of these phrases uses The Rule of Three, a wonderfully practical technique to make your stories more memorable. It’s also the focus of this newsletter.

Today’s hook (hit me back with your best guess): “In the week before their departure to [], when all final scurrying about had reached a nearly undeniable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, [].”

Last week’s hook: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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.

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.



PS: This is not a hard and fast “rule.” There are so few of those. It’s a guideline and helpful frame.

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A message from... Me!

The interest in this tweet blew me away...

In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:

  1. Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)

  2. Practice, practice, practice

I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.

And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.

Check it out:

Nathan’s Picks

☁️ Quote: “I've been making a list of the things they don't teach you at school. They don't teach you how to love somebody. They don't teach you how to be famous. They don't teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don't teach you how to walk away from someone you don't love any longer. They don't teach you how to know what's going on in someone else's mind. They don't teach you what to say to someone who's dying. They don't teach you anything worth knowing.” — Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

  • Neil uses the underlying principle of The Rule of Three, patterns, but cranks the dial up to hard mode. Instead of tying together three ideas, he does seven. He’s also a master storyteller. Start with three, work your way up.

📚 Video: You Must Be The Master of Your Own Kingdom. Guy Ritchie tells Joe Rogan about the essence of narrative.

⚒️ Tool: The Leuchtturm1917 journal is my favorite journal I’ve ever had. I now have three of these things. One for personal journaling, one for StoryWork, and one for outlining my 4th book. Enjoying a journal may seem like not a big deal, but I’ve found that simple enjoyment of the product makes me more likely to sit down on a Saturday morning, whip out the journal, and start writing.

When you’re ready to go deeper, here are three ways I can help:

I wrote this from chilly Austin, Texas. Where you reading from? Curious where all the World Builders are.