Add a Take of Three (Two’s Company. Three’s a Punchline)

27.09.2020 |

Episode #5 of the course Humor boosters: Lighten and tighten your writing by Gay Merrill


You’re halfway through the course! If you’re doing the exercises, by now you will have a small piece of writing you’ve revised by adding some specific words and setup and punch.

Another way to give your writing a humor boost is to apply the rule of three, which uses the joke structure you learned yesterday. You start with two straight items (the setup) and add a third item that is a comedic twist (the punch). The effect of the twist is a surprise, which can result in a smile, a snicker, or an eye roll.

But why three items? Why not two or five? You need at least three items to make a list. Three is the smallest and most memorable number that forms a pattern. And lastly, three items also help with the timing and tempo of your writing, so while it takes two to Tango, it takes three for comedy.

To make the rule of three work, you throw people’s expectations off track when you break the pattern. The buildup of expectation followed by the element of surprise releases the tension, allows people to find the humor, and laugh (or roll their eyes depending on the surprise element and the reader’s sense of humor).

Take the image above as an example. The visual display of book covers contains two classics: The Catcher in the Rye and Wuthering Heights. I chose Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader as the third item to add the element of absurdity and provide the twist. You don’t expect that book along with the other two. This example also demonstrates how you can use this rule when presenting visual information.

In his video “How to Stop Being Tired All the Time”, Thomas Frank opens with an example of three characters who possess great energy. He introduces each character by name followed by bringing the character’s image on screen separately. All three characters are well known; however, the first two are human and the last is a cartoon character.



How to Apply the Rule of Three

You can use the rule of three anywhere:

• In a bio:
John Cleese: “writer, actor, and tall person”

• In a website tagline:
Mother Reader: “The heart of a mother. The soul of a reader. The mouth of a smartass.”

• In a simple list:
Chicago, Paris, and Moose Jaw**
** Moose Jaw is an actual city in Canada.

• As a photo caption:
Scott Dikkers: “I like kickboxing, fixing up old motorcycles, and lying about my hobbies.”

• On an email signup page:
Dave Fox: “Your email address will absolutely never be shared, sold, or traded for camels.”

• In your personal phone message:
“Sorry, I can’t answer the phone right now. I’m either writing The Great Canadian Novel, signing autographs, or meeting with my employment counselor.”

The key to using this technique is to break the pattern with an absurd ending to your list. You want your last list item to be unexpected.

You can extend the rule of three to include sentences as your list items. Start with two straight sentences (setups) and make sure the last sentence has an element of surprise (punchline).

To demonstrate, here’s an example I wrote based on my old car:

“For over a week, my car gave warning signs. The engine cranked but wouldn’t start. I had to use jumper cables seven times. And then my key fob played dead.”

Keep an eye out for other examples that use the rule of three to add a touch of humor to writing. Use this technique in your own writing to make it more engaging, add a sense of fun, and outwit Uncle John.



1. Try your hand at using the rule of three for the following:

• A list of items

• A paragraph

• Your bio

2. Use your material from the observational writing you did for Lesson 2. If you have a list of items, revise it so that the last item contains a surprise. If you don’t have a list, create one.

Tomorrow’s humor boosting technique will blow your mind.


Recommended book

How to Write and Share Humor by Donna Cavanagh


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