Playwriting

Using the “Rule of Threes” in Dialogue

Three is an important number to dramatists:

  • It denotes rudimentary story structure (beginning, middle, and end)
  • It denotes the magic act (pledge, turn, and prestige)
  • It is the simplest expression of imbalance and tension (being the smallest odd prime number)

We call it the “Rule of Threes” — Anything presented in groups of three will generally be more pleasing to an audience than any other number. But how does it actually work in practice? Let’s look at a great example, a simple joke in the opening of Woody Allen’s one-act play, God. Two ancient Greeks, an actor and a writer, are having a spat over how to write an ending for a play:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a starving, out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play in an effort to assist your comeback.

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a drunkard.

This joke is satisfying (to me at least) because it uses the rule of threes simply and to great effect. In fact we have three groups of three in cascading order. First, the writer levels three criticisms at the actor:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a (1) starving, (2) out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play (3) in an effort to assist your comeback.

Next, he unpacks the joke with three affirmative statements in the following line:

ACTOR: Starving, (1) yes . . . Out of work, (2) perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, (3) maybe – but a drunkard?

The “yes – perhaps – maybe” is a motivated sequence that creates tension. We are filled with the suspense of threes and primed for the setup: the actor adds something that the writer didn’t say. Lastly, observe how he uses the Rule of Threes again to deliver the punchline, by repeating the adjective “drunkard”:

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a (1) drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a (2) drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a (3) drunkard. 

If you found this joke funny, think for a moment how it would play if it lacked this delicate balance of threes. I don’t think it would play well, or even at all.

Every line, better yet every word in a play is a choice that can either add to the drama of the moment or detract from it. This why the Rule of Threes is so critical to the craft. Audiences pick up on patterns of threes subconsciously, making them very effective agents of misdirection and surprise, the bread and butter of dramatic writing. Why do we all agree on the number three so much? Who really knows. But it works.

 

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