Three Is a Magic Number?

Hope you had a joyous Easter!

Before the snow I wrote about in a previous post came and went like a drive-by shooter, a friend’s mom gave me these from her garden:


Pretty, huh? But would you say this arrangement is more satisfying than it would have been had there been only two daffodils?

Number-3-iconAccording to the Rule of Three, the answer is yes.

The rule of Three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. (Wikipedia)

Want some more on that? Here you go:

The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three. (Wikipedia again)

You’ve seen this rule played out in literature: for example, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end; the three-act structure of a work (setup, confrontation, and resolution); three tasks someone has to perform in fairy tales; stories from the Brothers Grimm like “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes,” “The Water of Life,” and others involving three characters in specific situations (usually a quest); “God in three persons” (from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”); and trilogies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell and many others.

Number-2-iconYet in regard to book writing, the magic number for me is two, rather than three. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against trilogies. I’ve read dozens of them. But I’m writing a duology.

How many duologies have you read? Probably not many, right? I can only think of a few duologies off the top of my head: one by Sherwood Smith, another by Robin McKinley (I’m still waiting on the second book of McKinley’s duology to debut), and a third by Juliet Marillier. (See, the rule of three still comes into play, even in a discussion of authors of duologies.)

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Many series I’ve read involve an uneven number of books, namely three, five, or seven books. Some dare to be even-numbered series, like Stephenie Meyer’s four-book Twilight series. But three is the popular choice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why I’ve chosen to write a duology, rather than a trilogy. I know. I’m violating the rule. Though I haven’t yet written the second book, the story arc as planned seems complete not with three books or five, but two.

7873172Sorry, trilogy lovers. I can’t stretch the story over three books just to satisfy a rule. If I might borrow the words of Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring (though he referred to himself), the story would

Feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. (Tolkien 54)

See what I mean? Bilbo understands.

My hat is off to the many, many writers who can pull off three good books. I’m not one of those writers. That’s why I’m glad to know that good things also come in twos. Think about it: two arms, two legs, two eyes. Do you feel incomplete because you lack a third eye or a third hand? My guess is, you don’t.

Are you a firm believer in the Rule of Three? Would you prefer to write a trilogy or a duology? What is your favorite trilogy? Duology? Sandwich? (I threw in the latter to see if you were paying attention.)

To show that there are no hard feelings between me and the number three, check out this Schoolhouse Rock video, “Three Is a Magic Number.”

Another good post on the Rule of Three:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955. Print.

Numbers 2 and 3 images from Book covers from Goodreads. Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins photo from middle-earthencyclopedia.


33 thoughts on “Three Is a Magic Number?

  1. Off the top of my head I cannot think of a single (!) duology that I have read. In fact, I think that this is the first time I have ever encountered that word-duology, so thank you for that 🙂
    As an aside, in old Celtic tales and such, three is regarded as a sacred number. Pre-Christian as well as early Christian.

  2. Sandwich is definitely my favourite. 😉

    Hmmm, interesting question! Trilogies really do seem to be the flavour of the month, though I do tend to find that there is usually one book in a trilogy that is weaker than the other two. Often it’s the middle one, though I found with The Hunger Games it was the third one.

    To be honest, I don’t really have the attention span for more than three books in a series; I just tend to get bored after that. But I’m perfectly happy with one or two books if it tells a good story as well!

    • I know what you mean, Emily! I’ve been disappointed with some trilogies where the plot seemed dragged out to fit three books. Or, the plot seemed rushed and could have encompassed four books or even five.

  3. You make a really interesting point here Linda. I don’t think it really matters how many books it takes to tell a story as long as the story’s good. I write stand alone stories – at least at the moment. Best of luck with your writing. I look forward to reading the finished novels. 🙂

    • I like a stand-alone book too, Elaine. Technically, my book could be a stand-alone though the main enemy is still at large. In order to deal with that individual, another book is needed.

  4. Always thought 3 was a special number, especially in comedy. Warner Bros. cartoons did a lot of gags in 3’s. This might be why I get annoyed with ‘Family Guy’, which repeats a joke beyond the point of funny for me. That’s an entirely different issue though. As far as books, it is interesting how trilogies are seen as the ‘norm’ even though there are plenty of series that go further than 3. Happens a lot in fantasy books. Can’t think of any duologies though. I didn’t even know the term until now.

    • My nephew reminded me of the Rule of Three in comedy, since that’s his particular interest. 🙂
      I’m glad that many fantasy series (like yours :-)) go beyond three books. I can’t help thinking of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

  5. I hope you had a wonderful Easter, Linda! I can’t think of one duology, so yours will be the first I read…looking forward to it!
    Oh how I looked School House Rock. Thanks for the great memory this morning. 🙂

    • Glad to provide that, Jill. I love Schoolhouse Rock! And I had a lovely Easter with my family. The weather was perfect–around 65 or so. So nice to be outside on green grass.

  6. I think it’s great that you’re not stretching out the story for the sake of getting more books out of it. If it’s a two book story then you’re right in sticking to your guns rather than trying to make it a trilogy.
    I have to admit that I can’t think of another duology but then again being a trail blazer is always a good thing! I’d rather read two good books than three average ones any day of the week.

    Good luck with the writing!

      • I’ve got two books plotted out so far (second is quite a rough plot though) but there’s still more story to go after that, although some of it takes place with the following generation. So not too sure how to organise it all yet.

        I’m not too worried about what number of books it ends up being though. I’m more worried about getting the whole story told and telling it right, rather than trying to squeeze it into this or that format. Either way by the time the first book is fully finished I’d want to have any subsequent books all plotted out (ideally) so I can see the full story arc and make sure it all works together.

        Have you already got book 2 plotted out?

      • I’ve got the bare bones of a plot for the second book. The first book turned out differently than I thought, since it ended in a slightly earlier spot than it did when I wrote the outline. So, some of that will carry over to the next book.

        So, are you thinking series rather than trilogy?

      • It’s quite nice when a book goes different to what you planned isn’t it, it feels like the story’s coming alive then.

        I think it will be a series yes. I have a huge story arc in mind – well not so much huge, but something that will get passed on from one generation to the next, and I have a lot of material to go through. This is something that I first started imagining when I was a teenager (the later parts of the series anyway) so I’ve built up a LOT of story over the years….

        It sounds like Book 1 is almost done for you – what’s your plan for it? Traditional publishing, or independent?

      • I’ll try the traditional route first and see how far I get.
        How exciting that you started developing this when you were a teen. I was reading a behind the scenes look at a graphic novel series by Jeff Smith (the Bone series). He began drawing his characters when he was a kid. He’s won at least 21 awards for his series.

  7. The rule of three certainly does seem to be everywhere. I think it’s especially prevalent with books and movies because of Aristotle’s whole “beginning, middle, end” thing. I wonder if it’s really just a Western idea though. I’ve never analyzed Eastern culture to see if they hold the number in similar regard.

  8. I’m glad you wrote this, Linda. I’m not sure my books will stretch over three, and I didn’t realize I could write two and call it something like ‘duology.’ If it makes it to three, great. If not, I’m glad to know I don’t have to fill it with unnecessary stuff to get it there.

    My florist will not make an arrangement with an even number of flowers. She believes it’s bad luck. For whatever that’s worth in this discussion.

    • Wow. I didn’t know that about floral arrangements. I have noticed the odd number of flowers, now that you mention it.

      Andra, if your story goes to three books, great. I’m not against trilogies (though I am disappointed about Robin McKinley’s trilogy). If the plot fits three solid books, good.

  9. Oh, man, I love Crown Duel and Court Duel. So much. 🙂 But did you know that they now publish it as just one book? Also…I hate to be the bearer of such news, but…McKinley admitted a little while ago (on her blog) that Pegasus is actually gonna be a trilogy. Sigh.

    • Yes, I saw that Crown/Court were in one volume. That’s handy.
      As for Pegasus, Nooooooooooooo!!!!! Sigh. I’m depressed now about Pegasus. We’ve already waited AGES for the second book!!!! Now we have to wait years more for another book????

  10. I think you’re absolutely right to write however many books are necessary for your story–and your duology will rock. I believe the only duology I’ve ever read thus far is Stephen R. Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need series: The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through. At a conference I attended earlier this year, one of the panelists said she wanted to chuck the first book of the series across the room–in fact, I think she said she did–because of the heroine’s passivity. I actually loved the books when I read them, but it was many years ago–and much of the point is how the heroine changes. Anyway… I also love Schoolhouse Rock. And my favorite sandwich is turkey, avocado, lettuce, tomato, mayo on sourdough. 🙂

  11. I always thought the Rule of Three was if you invite three girls to spend the day together, two would invariably turn against the other one and she’d end up crying. In any case, I always considered myself a writer of one-offs, and ever since reading your blog this morning (that’s this morning in Portugal, which is six hours ahead of you in Chicago) that song “One Is the Loneliest Number” is running through my head.

  12. I think a story ought to be told however it presents itself so if that is as a duology then carry on! I’d never heard of such a thing but you have my sword. and my axe. and– that’s all. Just those two.

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