Subtitles, Drama and the Rule of Three

Titles are without a doubt one of the most vital elements for a successful book. But subtitles, while clearly “sub,” still matter a lot.

One way (not the only way) to construct an effective subtitle is by using the Rule of Three. Offering a list with three items gives a rising sense of movement, climax and direction. Consider these subtitles:

  • Unbroken:
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    A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

  • The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now!
  • God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?

The subtitle for Unbroken clearly shows a progression. The subtitle for The Blood Sugar Solution doesn’t move chronologically but rather develops in terms of emotional benefit. For God Behaving Badly the subtitle makes a cumulative impact.

Titles or subtitles with two items can be helpful for purposes of comparison and contrast. But they tend to be (though aren’t always) less effective because the items balance each other. On the positive side this gives a sense of stability, but negatively it can be less interesting because there is no sense of change. Consider two titles with paired items:

  • Empire and Honor
  • Kinsey and Me

Those are fine, serviceable titles. But they lack drama.

When using the Rule of Three in a subtitle, the longest item should almost always go last. Why? Rhythm overrides significance. Try reading (especially aloud) any of the following subtitles with the last item in the first or second place. Those options are always flatter. They lose their punch.

  • SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
  • The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
  • Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat

It’s not impossible

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to have a title with three items in a list. Guns, Germs & Steel was very successful. But as important as the Rule of Three can be, it can be trumped (especially for a title) by the Rule of Memorability. If people can’t remember the title of your book, that’s trouble. And a sequence of three can be elusive.

On the other hand, while the Rule of Three isn’t the only way to achieve an effective subtitle, it can be the road to impact, grabbing attention and a successful publishing venture.


Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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