How to Write Better Sentences and Paragraphs | The 2-3-1 Rule

The position of words in a sentence matters. Generally, you want to place the most important words or images at the end, so the idea hangs with the reader. Consider examining your work through the lens of The 2-3-1 Rule, where you have your most important part at the end, the second most important at the beginning, and the next most important information in the middle. 

Take this example and see how the order of words and images affect the tension of the story

The door was locked and after knocking two or three times he was sure the apartment was empty. He had rapped loud enough to make someone on the floor above rap back, like an exasperated ghost. But he would have to go in and make sure, and he didn’t have a key. He turned to go down the stairs to Mr. Freeman’s apartment, and that was when he heard the low groan from behind the door. The Stand, Stephen King

The 2-3-1 Rule is great for building suspense, but it can also be useful when you’re trying to evoke emotions such as fear, shock, and hopelessness: 

I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospect in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten. But I don’t recall that I had a single thought during those first minutes of relative safety. I didn’t even notice daybreak. I held on to the oar, I just held on, God only knows why. Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The 2-3-1 Rule can be used in many ways, regardless of what you’re writing. However, what I believe is the most powerful use of the rule is in misdirection and humour: 

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across — which happened to be the Earth — where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Have you tried The 2-3-1 Rule? Did you find it useful? Let me know in the comments below. 

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This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon)

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