I have a new obsession.
As a historian, it was probably inevitable. As a die-hard hip-hop hater, it definitely wasn’t.
That new obsession is Hamilton.
Yes, I realize I’m late to the game, though in my defense I have been using clips from the musical in my Anthropology class to illustrate how different cultures can interpret historical events, and utilize different methods to celebrate them. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘who thought you could talk about the Founding Fathers using hip-hop?’ (But let’s face it: I’ve long had a bit of a historical crush on the guy.) Along with that, I’ve also been reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography upon which the musical is based.
If you’ve never heard of Alexander Hamilton, I’m truly sorry for you and wonder which rock you’ve been living under for the past three years. In the 1980s, this was my favorite commercial (still is!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLJ2Vjv2x18
And then, of course, a young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda came along and, in 2015, turned a forgotten Founding Father into a household name.
But, that’s not what I came to talk about today. Last week, during my 37th listen-through of the Hamilton soundtrack, something hit me hard: Miranda’s incredible use of the Rule of Three in the musical.
If you’re asking “Rule of Three? What’s that?”, here’s a short definition: The Rule of Three adheres to the idea that we retain things best when iterated in threes. It can work at any level of anything you’re writing: from sentence structure, to character development, to story arcs. It works best when it’s subtle, when the reader takes 37 times to cotton on to the idea. Trust me, it’s in their minds! You don’t need to hit them over the head with it.
A great example (at the sentence level) is the Declaration of Independence. We all know it by heart:
We hold these truths to be self -evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . .
There. In that one sentence, we see the Rule of Three used twice. There are three truths in this sentence, and three of those truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Read it silently. Read it aloud. Notice the rhythm? That’s what makes this such great writing. The rhythm helps us remember it as well. It drives the points home.
Another great example is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Notice especially the last three lines. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. And then, of course, the three-fold repetition of free at last. King was a gift writer and speaker. He knew what he was doing. (Fun Fact: most of that speech was off the cuff. Improvised. For more on that bombshell, you can read this story from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/#581ae2f25c5b)
My major lightbulb moment coincided with something Chernow said in the book, that Hamilton – at least in his early days – thought dueling was a preferred way to uphold one’s honor, and that in certain circumstances, one must fight. Chernow also alluded to the fact that we suspect Hamilton may have been involved in more duels than That Most Famous One, either as a participant, a second, or at the very least, an adviser.
Yet only three are used in the musical.
- The first duel: Hamilton acts as second to his best friend John Laurens, in a duel against Charles Lee. Lee was shot in the side, but survived; both men walked away with honor intact.
- The second duel: Hamilton advises his eldest son, Phillip, that if his honor needs to be upheld, he should fight; Phillip does, and is killed. This is a complete reversal of the first duel; we expected Phillip to survive, but he didn’t. Also, it’s presaged by the music: the song for the first duel, ‘Ten Duel Commandments,’ is echoed later in the song ‘Take a Break,’ in which then-nine-year-old Phillip is learning to count in French.
- The third duel: Hamilton and Burr face off. And we all know how that ends.
Each time, with each duel, there’s rising tension – and rising stakes. The first time, Hamilton’s reputation, and best friend, are at risk; the second, his son; the third, his own life. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three. But it’s not the only way you can use it.
At the story arc level, the Rule of Three can be used in several different ways. You may use the same motif or theme three times. A character may appear three times. A similar scene may occur three times. The trick is to make sure that each of them serves a purpose. The first two times, the character may solve the problem easily, and then lose the third time. Think about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are three tests for the Champions to pass. Harry survives the first and second one, but the third one . . . This is a pattern known as ‘success-success-reversal.’ You set your readers up to expect your characters will succeed that third time – but of course, your readers are smart and they know that can’t happen. Therefore, you’re increasing the tension for them. They expect the reversal. Then, it’s up to you to pull it off in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying.
You could also use the Rule of Three to let your characters learn from their mistakes: failure, failure, success. This can be used to demonstrate that a character has changed over the course of the story arc, and their new skills, or the ways in which they’ve changed, mean they’re ready for the climax of the book.
I’m considering how to use the Rule of Three in the novel I’m currently writing. It’s pretty powerful and effective if you can do it! Take, for example, Diana Gabaldon and Outlander. Claire Randall Fraser goes back in time, and meets Captain Jonathan Randall – the ancestor of Claire’s husband, and a ‘bloody filthy pervert,’ as Claire later describes him. In their first official meeting, he beats Claire; in their second, he tries to rape her. Gabaldon sets it up perfectly, so we know that if there is a third encounter with Jonathan Wolverton Randall, it will not be pleasant. Needless to say, there is a third encounter. It is not pleasant. It is also, however, not Claire who is in the most danger in that scene. Gabaldon escalates the tension, but also gives us a reversal.
So how can you use it? I’m still working on it! But I think I have at least one way figured out; it’s just going to take some cutting and some rewrites to make it work. But hopefully, when I’m done, those three scenes will be far more powerful, and advance the story more effectively, than the myriad little scenes I’d had before.
https://www.dianagabaldon.com/other-projects/the-cannibals-art-how-writing-really-works/the-cannibals-art-jamie-and-the-rule-of-three/ – this is probably where I first learned about the Rule of Three! Diana Gabaldon lays out how to create a perfect Rule of Three in your novel, using Outlander as an example.
https://amyraby.com/2013/08/26/writing-technique-the-rule-of-three/ – another good blog post about the Rule of Three
https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/rule-of-three-in-writing/ – this is a great little article that addresses the Rule of Three at the macro level – but you can see how powerful, yet subtle, it is! If it works in marketing, it can work in literature.