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By Britton Perelman · April 22, 2022
Things in movies and TV shows tend to happen or appear in threes. It’s no coincidence. No, no, not at all.
It’s the Rule of Threes.
This can be a powerful storytelling tool that can do a number of important things for your screenplay. Let’s go over them below, and then analyze three examples of how the Rule of Threes in film.
Well, first let’s just establish that it’s not really a rule. There is no law saying you must use the rule of three in your script. The screenplay police aren’t going to come after you if you don’t.
The Rule of Threes is a writing principle wherein the storyteller presents something three times for greater effect in the narrative.
It’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Musketeers, and the Three Little Pigs.
When you want to call a certain comical demon in a black-and-white striped suit, you say his name three times.
The Genie in Aladdin grants three wishes. Not two, not four — three.
See? It really is a magic number.
There’s something clean about the number three. As Goldilocks would probably say, “Not too few, not too many. It’s just right.”
Three is the lowest number needed to establish a pattern, and human beings have become accustomed to seeing things in groups of this number.
In storytelling, this concept goes all the way back to Aristotle, who dictated in his Poetics that all stories have a beginning, middle, and end. One could also point to the Holy Trinity in Christianity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Even today, the dominant story structure in Hollywood is split into three acts.
There’s a reason movie series are often trilogies — the first serves as the beginning, the second the middle, and the third the end. A trilogy is simply an expanded example of three-act structure.
Three is simply satisfying in a way other numbers aren’t.
Now that you understand the concept of the Rule of Threes, let’s look at a few different ways this principle appears in popular movies.
When Harry Met Sally…
The title implies a single meeting, but in fact, Harry and Sally meet three separate times in Nora Ephron’s beloved rom-com. Ephron effectively uses the Rule of Threes to structure the setup of the love story.
First, they meet after college graduation to drive from Chicago to New York. Ephron uses this first encounter (roughly the first 14 minutes of the movie) to introduce the audience to Harry and Sally’s differing personalities, opinions, and beliefs.
A few years later, they meet again by chance while on the same flight. This encounter is shorter (only eight minutes) but serves to reinforce what we’ve already learned about Harry and Sally — most importantly, that she still has no interest in being his friend.
And finally, they meet for a third time at a bookstore in New York City. This final time is when the story really takes off because this time, Harry and Sally become friends.Download the script
Another great example of the Rule of Threes appears in Steven Spielberg’s epic, Schindler’s List.
As the relationship between Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern develops throughout the first two acts of the movie, Schindler twice offers Stern a drink. Each time, Stern politely refuses.
But in the third act, after Schindler has sacrificed his fortune to save thousands of Jewish lives, Stern takes him up on the offer.
The gesture is a sign — the first two times Schindler asked, Stern’s refusal was symbolic of Schindler’s moral standing. He wasn’t a good enough man for Stern to have a drink with. But the third occurrence symbolizes that Schindler has changed on a fundamental level and has earned Stern’s respect.Download the script
The Dark Knight
The Rule of Threes can also appear in dialogue, as it does in the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Throughout the movie, the Joker thrice uses the same line to taunt his soon-to-be victims before he does something despicable — “Wanna know how I got these scars?”
The first two times, it’s a rhetorical question the Joker answers himself, telling various stories to explain the scars on his face.
The third time, the Joker poses the question to his foe, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” But before he gets the chance to tell yet another version of his sad backstory, Batman cuts him off, saying, “No, but I know how you got these,” and shoots blades at the Joker’s face.
It’s a subversion of the subtle pattern established earlier in the movie, which shows the audience that the story has come to a pivotal turning point.Download the script
For storytelling purposes, three works so well because it can provide a rhythm for the storyteller to use to their advantage without being too overt or heavy-handed.
When you present something three times in a narrative, each occurrence takes on a certain meaning. These meanings might change depending on your desired effect, but they follow a similar pattern.
Here are three variations on the Rule of Threes:
The Rule of Threes can appear as dialogue, action, various plot elements, characters, or even within the structure of a story itself.
As with any writing principle, the Rule of Threes is meant to help, not hurt.
It’s a great technique that screenwriters can use to illustrate a character’s change or growth, subvert audience expectations, or subtly signify pivotal structural points within a story.
Once you start looking for the Rule of Threes, you’ll notice it everywhere. It’s as easy as one, two, three.
“No more, no less. You don’t have to guess. If it’s three, you can see it’s a magic number.”
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.