Being a Better Writer: Nintendo’s Rule of Three

Welcome back, writers! It’s the first Being a Better Writer article post LTUE! So, in fact, maybe that should also be “Welcome, new writers,” because there may be a number of you checking out Unusual Things for the first time post-convention.

Now, if you are new and looking at that title wondering “What? I know Nintendo. That’s video games. What does that have to do with writing?” you’re probably one of a few. And it’s a fair question. But as prior followers of the site will attest, knowledge of writing and application can come from some very unique and unexpected sources. So there are often titles that may make one wonder “How on Earth could that have anything to do with writing?” that then go hard into the details and end up a pleasant—and educational—surprise.

So, don’t fret that you’ve arrived on the wrong site just because of the word “Nintendo” up above. You’re in the right place, and today we’re talking writing.

Well, as soon as we get through the usual allotment of site news. Most of it’s what you would expect: LTUE happened this last weekend, and it was an absolute blast. You can check out the write-ups for more details, but the short of it is that I had a great time, appeared on some fantastic panels, rubbed shoulders with some great folks and fellow writers, and sold out on Axtara before the third day had even hit noon.

Yeah, she’s really soaring. Shadow of an Empire paperbacks were selling as well, but in an inverse of last year, this time it was Axtara‘s turn to fly for the sky.

Anyway, LTUE is an awesome and fantastic experience that as always, I recommend wholeheartedly. I ran into several first-time attendees, and they were amazed and excited by the breadth and depth of knowledge on display at the con.

Okay, enough about LTUE. Some of you are probably tired of it or rolling your eyes. It’s awesome, this last weekend was great, and after a nice Sunday spent recharging via sleep and decompressing via some relaxation, I am so pumped to finish up this Jacob Rocke novel and get to work on Axtara – Magic and Mayhem.

But first. we’ve got today’s Being a Better Writer to discuss. So, without further ado, let’s get to it, and talk about Nintendo’s Rule of Three, and how you can apply it to your plotting to make a better story.

Weird, I know. But trust me. This is cool. Hit the jump.

So to start with, let’s get a little origin out of the way. I know this as “Nintendo’s Rule of Three,” but this isn’t always what it’s called. It may also be called “Shigeru Miyamoto’s Rule of Three” (Yes, that Miyamoto) since he’s one of the people who put it into effect and spoke about it earliest, but I’ve also seen articles and places call it a game design concept just as the “Rule of Three.”

So what is it, and what does it have to do with writing? Let’s tackle that first one before we get ahead of ourselves.

The rule of three is the idea that you present something in a game, such as a mechanic or an enemy, in three escalating steps before going all in. These steps ensure that the audience—in this case, the player—is eased into thinking about how something works and how it can be used, which then encourages their mind to extrapolate further when presented with the mechanic in question later—be it a foe, item, magic, whatever.

So, if we were making a game, the three steps to the rule of three would be these:

  1. Introduce the thing as simply as possible.
  2. Do it again, but with a slight twist or a wrinkle.
  3. Again present the thing, but with a different (and ideally more complicated) execution.

Now, once you’ve done all three of these, you can continue to use this thing in new, creative ways, such as throwing large numbers of them at the player if they are an enemy with new twists, or giving them puzzles that will build on what was in those three steps.

Basically, Miyamoto understood that three was the magic number of times it would take most people to internalize a new concept and start to see the ways it could be utilized. And many people that have written about this or demonstrated it have done so by explaining how a game demonstrates these three rules, often with an enemy or an item.

For example, the player’s first encounter with a new enemy may be very simple: They walk into a room, the door closes behind them, locking, and then the enemy appears in the center of the room and begins to move toward them. Maybe this new foe has a big, massive sword that they swing horizontally, and the player, maybe after being hit once or twice, learns to jump over the blade. There are healing wards around the edges of the room, so they’re not really in any danger, just learning how to deal with this foe. They strike them down, then move to the rest of the dungeon or level.

A bit later, they find a new room that locks the door behind them. Now there are two of this enemy, and a few less healing wards. One of the wards is placed so that when the first strike comes, it destroys the ward. Hmm … new wrinkle, but not too bad. The player defeats both of them and heads deeper into the dungeon.

Oh hey, another locked room, this time with two more of these big sword skeletons. Only this time there are no healing wards, and also instead of an open arena there are stone pillars all over the place that the skeleton’s swords will bounce off of, stunning the striking foe … though they do wear down and break after a few hits.

After that, the foe takes their place in the roster of challenges ahead of the player, showing up mixed with other enemies (another option for one of the arena rooms) or in increasingly complex situations. But the player has learned what to expect and how to use this foe to their advantage in a fight. For example, knowing that the large blade has been shown to interact with other objects, the player could then face the skeleton as well as some shielded enemies that until then have been a real pain and correctly deduce “Hey, I’ll bet that giant sword which I was taught will hit things other than me will whack these shield enemies in the back if I position myself correctly.” And with delight, they will discover that they are correct.

Now, this is a non-specific example of how Nintendo’s Rule of Three is applied to game design, but I think you get the idea behind it. Simple, safe introduction, followed by a twist, followed by a larger twist, each designed to teach the player something about whatever this thing is so that they can go out into the large experiences taking it in.

Okay, this is cool and all. But what does this have to do with writing? We’re over a thousand words into today’s topic and we’ve learned some neat game design basics. but do they have anything to do with writing?

Naturally, the answer is yes. And things are about to get very cool.

See, we can’t apply the rule of three everywhere in our books. We simply don’t have the time to give each new foe, or each new legendary artifact our protagonist finds three separate introductions. It would lengthen out our story to a large slog. Sometimes all we need to know is “We are being chased by an antagonist on a warg, and a warg is a giant magic wolf that breathes ice, and the protagonist is now running for their life.” We don’t have time to introduce everything with three separate encounters.

Or do we? Because while we may not be giving our icy warg three different scenes, we can use the rule of three in their first scene, can’t we? Let’s give it a shot. Our hero is moving along the next stage of their journey, when suddenly … A howl from the woods. Their mentor goes pale, states the call is that of the warg, and says to run off the road and through the forest, cutting to the nearest … guard post (I’m making this up as I go along). They begin to run down the road, and are “first of the three” is the warg rushing up behind them, the rider firing long-range arrows which probably aren’t going to hit, but why not on the chance that they do?

The warg drawing closer with great speed, our protagonist dives into the forest, safe from the arrows. The warg must slow to make its way through the thick trees, but now the protagonist must slow a little too, and there’s risk of getting turned around or separated. They keep running, and now the warg is slower, but they can’t just run straight ahead. The twist is keeping their own bearings while staying ahead of the warg.

The final twist comes as they near the safety of the guard post. The warg closes on them, and they must fight while running away, with the warg exhaling its icy breath all around them, making the ground treacherous and slippery, the antagonist on its back still firing arrows from close range.

Boom, third of the three. The protagonist gets to safety despite this, the warg is repulsed … but the writer knows that this is just a preview, and later down the line, this creature will be back for a showdown.

And boom, that’s the rule of three applied to a scene that may only be a few paragraphs. Or a few pages, depending on your book and your audience.

Now, I don’t want you to misread this. While we can find examples of books doing this, there are plenty of books that don’t. Nintendo’s Rule of Three can be a fun rule to apply to scene—sometimes in several different ways at once—but isn’t a rule set in stone. It’s more of a stencil that can be pulled out of your toolbox that, even if you’re only doing two of the rules instead of three, can just make for a good framework to move around to keep tension increasing with each wrinkle or help an object or a device not overstay its welcome (if you’re not introducing wrinkles, for example, the same thing can quickly become tiresome to read about).

Point being, you don’t have to use this for scenes, but you can, and it can be an effective tool. But this post wasn’t written with that in mind. In actuality, I latched onto writing about this for another use of the rule of three entirely.

Long-term plotting. Yes, I put that in bold for a reason. I think the best place to use this “Rule of Three” concept is in laying our your plots for your story. Yes, even if you’re a pantser. Using the rule of three to ease your reader into a concept—such as a magic system, or a cool toy they have that will be key to the plot, or even to ease the audience into a character—can be quite effective.

Okay, what do I mean here? As before, let’s dive in with an example. Lets say you want your story to have an adventurous awesome hero accompany the protagonist. Like an Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Well, how can you introduce them to the audience? I would suggest the rule of three. The first appearance, in the chapter they appear in, is simple and straightforward. Safe. The protagonist asks “Who are you?” and our rugged adventurer says something like “I’m a hunter, and you look like you need a hand.”

Motivation, etc, can be doled out here, or you could keep them mysterious. The specific details aren’t as important as giving the audience some of them so that they have a straightforward understanding of the character.

But then a few scenes or even chapters later, maybe they run into the first wrinkle, and we learn more about them. Maybe they’re journeying and the protag says “I’m hungry” only for the hunter to nod, pull their bow from their shoulders, vanish into the woods for a few moments, and return with a dead rabbit or bird to cook. Remember, the point of the rule is to teach the audience, so regardless of what they’re given, it should be something that allows them to understand more about the character and see their skills, talents, etc that they will contribute to the story.

Then again, we jump ahead, and we get the third wrinkle, say … a something that requires the hunter to make two close shots in quick succession. Again, a wrinkle that expand on their skills and talents, that help the audience understand “This is what the character can contribute in this situation.” Then, when battle is joined later, the reader can be thinking “Oh wow, that foe is super armored, I wonder if the hunter can land a shot through that tiny visor?” When he succeeds at it, the reader will happily think “Oh yeah!” but if he succeeds in another clever way—like perhaps shooting the leather saddle ties that keep this mountain of armor mounted, unseating them from their mount and evening the playing field—this will also be a case where the reader nods and thinks “Yes, this was properly set up.”

What I’m getting at is that you can use the rule of three as a plotting tool to gradually introduce ideas and concepts, characters included, to the reader and get them to see how they can be used to resolve or battle conflicts later on.

This can be used in a variety of ways. For example, perhaps your protagonist stumbles into possession of a powerful magical or Sci-Fi artifact and is now a “chosen one” (or rather, just “the one we got”). You can use Nintendo’s Rule of Three to explore the power and usage of this item from the plotting stage, pulling it out of your toolbox and applying it over the story like a stencil. “Okay, in these opening chapters I establish that the item does X. Then, a few chapters later I’ll introduce this wrinkle, which will help the audience see that it can be used in this way as well. Then in this chapter I’ll have this be the wrinkle, showing that it cannot be used to do this other thing, but only this one thing, at which point the protagonist will be confident enough to start using it regularly, and they and the audience both will have an understanding of the how and why.”

This rule can be a fantastic help across our plotting. We can use it to plan out encounters with a big bad, to gradually unveil to the audience (and our protagonist, perhaps) just how cunning and dangerous they are. After all, we can use the rule of three to run away three different ways. We can use it to show off how our magic system works across an opening chapter, with just a use and then fun variations of that use in the background.

I want to be clear, however, that the rule of three is not just a way to present information to our audience. It’s not just for exposition. Rather it is meant to lead our audience to understand how a system works so that they begin thinking of the potential behind it. In this way, when we explore that potential later in some way, the reader can have the joy of going “Oh, yeah, that makes sense” or “Aha! I figured it out! I knew it!”

We’re not just presenting exposition in a smooth, streamlined manner with this rule. We’re teaching our readers how to view our world, just as a game teaches a player how to handle a new challenge.

So, let’s recap. Nintendo’s Rule of Three is a simple pattern to follow when introducing new concepts and ideas that is designed to both explain something to the audience, but also to get the audience to start thinking of ways in which to use it. Think of it as a stencil in your writer’s toolbox, one which you can use to plot out chapters, a whole trilogy, or even just a scene. You bring it out, you follow the three rules—simple (at least somewhat) safe introduction, a new wrinkle, and an advanced wrinkle—and then we continue forward using what we have introduced with those three steps.

I emphasize that for a reason. We can use the three rules for a “one and done” appearance, but it shouldn’t be always our conclusions. Ideally with Nintendo’s Rule of Three, you go on to continue to use what you’ve introduced in increasingly complex ways. If you don’t, and you just use the rule everywhere, you will wear our your reader. As with most all of the tools we talk about, a good writer will consider when and where to deploy said tool. If every encounter in your book with anything follows the rule of three, the reader will catch on and possibly become bored.

Again, you don’t have to use this rule for everything. It’s an optional stencil. Usage of it should be considered, then carefully applied where it will do the most good. Which ideally will be to introduce concepts or characters that might otherwise trip up readers and get them to understand and think ahead on what they bring to the story.

It’s not for everything. But when you’re planning your story out or ready to introduce the big bad, or considering how to introduce and explain your magic system to your audience, it’s worth pulling out the stencil and laying down atop your plans to see if it might help. It may, and it may not, but if it does, you’ll have a powerful tool to help move that part of your story forward.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Nintendo’s Rule of Three

  1. When people say “the rule of 3” without attributing it to anyone, they mean a rule which is much older than videogames, but much simpler than what you’ve described here. It means just 2 things:
    – Any major success should follow 2 failures. This is the hero in the try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed arc of a movie, or it can be the pattern of a fairy tale: the oldest son tries and fails, the second son tries and fails, the youngest son tries and succeeds.
    – To show one thing is unusual, you must first show 2 other things of the same kind that are similar to each other.

    What’s interesting is how universal this is. There are some cultures that use a rule of 4 instead of 3, and it can be maddening for people from rule-of-3 cultures to read their stories, because during the third repetition they seem to be dragging on forever.

    I like this more-complicated rule you’ve described. I’ll see if I can use it.


    • Yes, there was talk on the Discord of doing a post on the more classical “Rule of Three” in the future, and it’s on the current topic list, but Nintendo’s unique twist on things got a post first due to its neat mechanical usage of easing the audience in. The first time someone pointed it out to me I was intrigued, and then I started seeing it everywhere in Nintendo’s designs. Naturally, it works for writing as well.

      On a side note there’s just something about three that clicks with our brains.


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