I Command You Follow The Rule of Three (Unless You Don't Want to)

I am a rule follower.  So when people say "Remember the rule of three," I cut incidents out of my story.  Then they say "Remember aim for 14 spreads."  Then I squint my eyes, wrinkle my nose, and say "Aw sassafras*." 

*I have been caught saying other things in front of the kids recently, so I am working on using 'sassafras.'

Oh the Rule of Three.  Three bears.  Three porridges.  Three attempts.  Three. Three. Three.
And I get it.  In a short story.  House of sticks, house of straw, house of bricks, wolf in the pot.

But how do I stretch 3 incidents into 14 spreads for a picture book?  Even if each incident is a reasonable 2 spreads, 8 spreads remain to be filled with the opening and the resolution.  Throw in the "open in the action" and the "two spreads to resolve" rules and clearly picture books are mathematically impossible. 

So I studied some picture books.   The majority are concept books which don't follow the rule.  Then there are traditional story books where I couldn't tease out a three. 

First the rules breakers:
In The Monster at the End of This Book (Stone, 1971) Grover makes four attempts to keep kids from turning (telling you not to, tying the pages, nailing the pages, and a brick wall).  

In The Nicest Naughtiest Fairy (Ward, 2008) the well-behaved naughty fairy makes 5 attempts to help friends and fails royally all 5 times.  Spread 1: Opening, Spreads 2-9: Five Attempts & Fails, Spreads 10-12: Resolution.   My brain wants to write books this way, and here is proof it can be done.

I found ONE perfect three in Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (Chodos-Irvine, 2003).  Spread 1: Opening, S2-7: 3 Suggestions/3 "no's," S8-14 Resolution.   The illustrations allow the resolution to be spread out over such a long stretch.  It was a Caldecott Honor book after all. 

The Boy who Cried Ninja (Latimer, 2011) offers a double three.   ½ spread introduces MC & Problem.  S1-3: Show the first 3 problem causers.  S4: MC makes a decision. S5-7: Show 3 new problem causers.  S8-9: MC takes action.  S10-14 Resolution.  This is a pleasing use of the rule of three.   

The Knuffle Bunny (Willems, 2004) uses a triple three.  S1: Intro, S2-3: three places on way to laundromat, S4-6: the problem, S7-9: Trixie's three attempts to tell Dad the problem, S10-11: The lowest low is reached, S12-13: three places on the way back to the Laundromat, S14-15½: Resolution

So what does it all mean?
Three is a good rule.  You can use threes in several ways.  You don't have to follow the rule. 

Sound off - what do you think about the rule of three?


  1. Love the rule of three. A key rule for PBs, I think; three's enough to create a pattern, but not enough to make the story tedious.

    By the way, when I am grumpy and around my son, I often find myself talking about shiitake mushrooms.

    1. I worked on a ms last night after my analysis. I was able to build each of the three incidents so it covered 9 spreads (at least I think.) With an opening spread and a few resolution spreads, it seems to work.

      But sometimes with three you end up with a lot of mush until the resolution. And you know mush is a pile of shiitake mushrooms.

    2. I love all the shiitake talk. I'm not too good with rule of three but then I prefer to write concept books. It's such a shame they are a hard sell.

    3. Catherine - I tell ya, most of the board books in my closet are concept books. Even though the majority of the 4-8 year old range are not concept books, there are a fair number of concept books, including some very popular ones (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, etc)

  2. Sometimes I get frustrated with all the rules, especially when I try to study PB and find that it does not always apply. Can't we just write? Sometimes I feel the technical aspect of writing gets in the way of my creativity.

    1. Your frustration is the one which makes me want to move to middle grade at times - just to find a little more creative flow. The PB rules form a kind of ugly box. The challenge is to improve my writing until I can write my way out of a box!

  3. Hi Lauri! I wanted you to know I left you an award on my blog, Ink in the Book blogspot. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for the Liebster nomination! I really appreciate it, and I enjoyed getting to know you through all your award answers.


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