Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Rhetorical Menage a Trois

One of a writer's most useful tools - right up there with talent, persistence and a taste for poverty - is the rule of three. As illustrated in the previous sentence.

Define it broadly. Define it narrowly, in rhetorical terms, as the tricolon. But never define it late for dinner. (Okay, it doesn't always work.)

Comedians love it as a reliable joke formula.  Great speakers use it as naturally as they draw air into their lungs. (Scroll down to Quintillian: "The rule of three creates an illusion of completeness and finality.")

Working writers use it because it works.

I recommend the use of Three Magic in its simplest terms. If you are ending a speech story with quotes from the audience, include at least three because if you have three good ones, I always assume you have more than that, but if you only have two, I always assume that's all you have. (Does that make sense? I am simply describing my personal reaction.)

If you giving a string of examples in a story, give three, and it's even better if you give them in ascending order of importance, with the last one often delivering a surprise: "On her desk you notice three things: a stained coffee cup, a pencil broken in half and an autographed picture of Justin Bieber."

Or maybe, in a paraphrase even though you are not quoting directly, you repeat the same word three times: "He cares about the people, he kept saying. He says he really does care about them. The people, you know. He means the people."

We aren't rigid about applying this rule. Not everything works in threes. But keep it in mind. It's something I am aware of in my own writing, and naturally I think it's a hell of a fine idea. I could have said it's a hell of a heckuva fine idea. But come on.

(Here's a sample Rule Three joke from Jon Stewart. "I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.")

1 comment:

....J.Michael Robertson said...

A friend writes MR:

I see your point. And I like it. Three is valid. Less is questionable. But I avoid all things three in my writing. It has become a readymade conception. And construction. Also: series in a sentence is almost always bad. It's lazy. "Just reel off things, don't take the extra thought to construct a new declarative sentence that advances the thought, description, paragraph." Threes let you get away with that. And you shouldn't. Go the extra foot, year, mile. See?

Sent from my iPad