The Rule of 3 (also called the “triple”) is a copywriting and comedy commandment.
Think about it.
Everything is just punchier, more memorable, and more enticing in threes — whether you’re creating a bullet-point list, ordering scoops at the ice cream shop, or juggling multiple lovers… none of whom know about the others’ existence. 😬
This GIF is only tangentially related to that last thing, but honestly, how could I not use it
Schoolhouse Rock even did a song about the rule of 3, which is, like, Jesus, so incredibly creepy:
(Scroll down for an even creepier video on the rule of three. Oh my god, who rubber-stamps this stuff??)
So why does the rule of 3 have such power over us?
Psychological secrets behind the rule of 3
Secret #1: We like things with a beginning, middle, and end
Recently, I saw a newbie try his hand at a local standup comedy open mic.
He grabbed the microphone and started telling a story about his roommate walking in on him while he was masturbating.
Aaaand… that was the end of the story.
Highly dissatisfying. (Probably for everyone involved.)
Actual video of the audience reaction
Why? Because this turdburger didn’t tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end! He left off the end and expected the audience to laugh anyway.
But no one was ready to laugh, because we were still waiting for the story to end (and for this dude to get offstage).
There’s a reason that plays often have three acts… a reason that the trilogy is a popular book and film format…
And that shitty, three-word, period-punctuated headlines like “Cutting-Edge. Superior. Amazing” still appear all over the Internet.
Also in the real world:
Hat tip to Digiday
Secret #2: Three is the minimum number required to create a pattern or “streak”
Remember 10th grade geometry, when your teacher pointed out that it takes a minimum of two points to create a line?
Well, it takes a minimum of three things to create a discernible pattern. That’s why, given a brain-teaser like “Find the 4th number in the sequence: 3, 6, 9, ___,” we can figure out the next number.
Having just “3, 6” wouldn’t tell us what to do next.
Interestingly, one study found that “the third repeat event in a sequence is pivotal to the subjective belief that a streak is occurring.”
Put another way, you need to see your boyfriend do the dishes at least three times before you believe he might actually be worth keeping around.
Lol, gender roles, amirite
Secret #3 (ooooh!): A series of 3 offers a concrete “middle” choice
We also like things in threes because offering three items can help anchor the “middle” choice as the best or most popular. This is a useful pricing tactic, and one you’ll see all over SaaS and other service-provider websites.
Secret #4: Three has a naturally satisfying cadence
Listen to any NPR broadcaster read a series of three items. Their voice will lift or lower on the second one.
It’s just a natural inclination to indicate the difference between one, two, and three.
How to use the rule of 3 in funny copy
In general, if you’re writing copy with a series of three, save the funny word or phrase for the last item in the series. That ensures it’ll have the maximum punch.
Usually it’s something surprising or shocking. Or something that’s the opposite of what you were led to expect (this is called a reversal).
“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.”
– Jon Stewart
You can also “heighten” throughout a series.
I could do an entire post on heightening (and I probably will… soon).
My next blog is just over that ice floe
But for now, think of heightening as moving in a clear direction. You can start small and make something bigger and more bombastic, or the opposite — start “normally” and get ridiculously small or insignificant.
You might go from “safety pin” to “knife” to “harpoon cannon”.
Or you might go the opposite direction, from “President of the Galactic Republic” to “2-term Congressperson” to “night janitor at the local high school”.
It’s the relationship between these items that’s funny, not any single item on its own (though I did titter a little when I came up with “harpoon cannon” just now, ‘cause it sounds good. More on funny words and sounds later… ).
I like how improviser Will Hines defines heightening as “hit[ting] a comedic idea several times in a way that obviously gets more absurd as you go.”
(Side note: buy Will’s book, How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth. It rules.)
Where should you use the rule of 3?
Aim to lighten the mood with humor in any of these spots in your copy:
Series of examples — Item 1, Item 2, Unexpected/Absurd Item 3
Comparisons — Writing this post is like having my teeth pulled, only I’m both the dentist and the victim.
Exaggerations — This chair is so old, it probably has grandchildren. It probably uses an AARP discount card. It’s so old, it needs its own goddamn chair to sit down and take a load off.
In intros or lead-ins — You know, like I did with this post
Remember that 3 is the minimum number required to form a pattern. You don’t have to stop at three.
If you want to hammer home the humor and venture into absurdity, you can continue adding to the pattern, like SNL does in this sketch:
The basketball players in the background are what’s funny in this sketch. They get called out by the director three times, and then we see a series of quick cuts where the background players get more and more ridiculous.
(And did you notice the reversal at the end of the sketch?)
Quick caveat here: if you add more to your series of three items, make sure you don’t let your joke outstay its welcome.
PS. The world’s creepiest video on the rule of 3
Told you I’d give it to you.
How do you usually use the Rule of 3?