Skip to content

The Rule of Threes, Conflict, and Starting Your Story

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

I have a student who works in comedy, and we recently had a nice conversation about the rule of threes.

The essence of the rule is that any slogan, a joke, or a story built in three parts has the greatest impact.

But why?

The standard breakdown of the rule is:

  1. setup (or planting)
  2. reinforcement (or reminder)
  3. payoff (or break expectation)

You set up the joke, you reinforce it by either reminding us of the central premise or by building on it, and then paying it off by either delivering the punchline or disrupting the expectation.

This rule not only works in comedy, but almost any genre, including horror and action. As an example of this, watch this excellent breakdown from Lindsay Ellis of setup, reinforcement, and payoff in Mad Max: Fury Road (a genre film that continues to make me marvel in its craftsmanship).


In his book, Impro, Keith Johnstone says that an improviser “shouldn’t really think of making up stories, but of _interrupting routines._”

The rule of threes works similarly. The first part sets up the basis, the second one reinforces it, and the third one disrupts it.

Routine ≠ Without Conflict

To be clear, we don’t need routine to mean without conflict.

I often rail against people who spend time “setting up” their story, when in fact, they should be establishing how their characters are in conflict—most often internally.

Before the story begins, characters want something they believe will make them feel fulfilled, or they seek to deal with the internal obstacle or flaw that stands in their way of that fulfillment.

Our job as writers is to show the routine of that conflict through action.

Story begins with disruption

Once we’ve shown the routine of conflict, we can now disrupt it.

This often occurs through external stimulus because the character has been stuck so long in this static conflict that they can’t internally solve the problem. A disruption is required.

But once it does occur, the real story, the story our readers signed up for, begins.


David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.


Related Posts

Members Public

What's it for?

Seth Godin recently asked two questions in a blog post: "Who's it for? What's it for?" When writing, do you know who it's for? It doesn't have to be an audience with a capital "A." It doesn't have to be for any audience; it can be for just you. But

Members Public

Journey with your characters

Most people can't have the whole story in their heads. Too many pieces, too many moving parts. That doesn't mean you must plan it out. Once your character's story takes shape, then begin. Allow yourself to be surprised and adapt, and let your imagination take you on a journey. That

Members Public

The lies our characters tell themselves

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon tells the story of a priest and woodcutter trying to understand a murder by listening to the testimonies of the multiple people involved. Ultimately, they struggle to find the truth amongst the lies. A similar type of story occurs within each of us. We tell ourselves multiple