Thursday, July 7, 2011

ANSWERS, INK An occasional feature of questions that writers might have asked

Dear Inkpot,

I’ve heard a lot about the rule of three being important in writing. Do you think I should revise my novel to A TALE OF THREE CITIES?

Doubly (or triply) yours,


Dear Chuck,

Three as a rule shows up often in children’s books: three little pigs, three billy goats gruff, three bears, three wishes. But as with almost all rules about writing, this is more a rule of thumb than an absolute dictum.

The rule of three may have its roots in philosophy: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. When faced with a problem, the protagonist may try one solution, then the opposite solution, then a third solution that might be some combination of the first two.

If all three fail, readers and protagonist are left with a feeling of almost utter despair, a bleak moment. If only one or two solutions fail, the problem may seem trivial. If six or seven solutions fail, the problem may seem so unsolvable as to lose a reader’s interest.

So the rule of three is certainly a useful concept, but I believe there is only one real rule of writing, and that is, make it work. If two cities works in your story, then go for it, and good luck!


  1. Three is the magic number in traditional European and Asian literature. Everyone gets three wishes, three tries, three obstacles, right?
    However, in Native American literature the magic number has always been four.
    But I agree with Phyllis, if it works, it works.

  2. Yes, in Alaskan native stories it is four. But I love magic in any number and the magic of marvelous people here at our residency.