The Power of Three

So, I’ve been thinking lately (a dangerous pastime, I know) and I’ve begun to notice a pattern in my writing. No, I’m not talking about similar story arcs or plot lines. I’m talking about the power of the three.

I grew up on School House Rock and one of my favorites was always “Three is a Magic Number.” It was so catchy and fun, even if it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Basically, the song lists a bunch of examples of where three can be found throughout life. There wasn’t a greater purpose beyond that, but I enjoyed it all the same. The other day, I had the song stuck in my head while I was writing and I started to notice a bunch of examples where you could find three. Here is what I found:

  1. Ellipses (…)

This one is pretty straightforward. In an ellipses, there’s always three dots. Two makes it seem like there is a mistake and the writer doubled up accidentally on a period, and four is just a little too long. But three is just right.

  1. Acts

One of the general rule of writing is that a story should have three acts. The first act (the Set-Up) is where the audience is introduced to the main characters and the driving conflict of the story. The second act (the Confrontation) is where the build-up occurs until the climactic moment where the MC comes face to face with whatever they’re dealing with. The third act (the Resolution) is the aftermath of the Confrontation, which can vary story to story. But this general plot structure clearly follows the magic number of three.

  1. Jokes

Now, this one I actually learned while I was studying theater, but this can also be applied to writing. Whenever you have a recurring joke in a story, you want to use it no more than three times. If you use it more than that, the viewer starts to get bored with it. Less and the reader might think that you accidentally recycled a joke. Including it three times ensures that the audience will pick up on the pattern and understand that it is intentional.

  1. Characters

This isn’t as common, but I’ve definitely noticed a pattern among some of the most popular series in fiction. There generally seem to be three main characters that balance each other out. As the series continues, the author might add or (sadly) subtract characters from this main group but the series generally starts with three characters. Examples of this can be found in Harry Potter (Harry, Ron and Hermione), Percy Jackson (Percy, Annabeth and Grover) and The Hunger Games (Katniss, Peeta and Gale). Not all books follow this rule, but I have definitely noticed a pattern in general fiction.

  1. Setting

I remember hearing that when a writer is describing a setting, it’s best to describe it using at least three of the five senses. This helps give the reader a more well-rounded idea of what they’re supposed to be picturing. Obviously, the three most common that are used are sight, sound and smell as these can be applied to most settings. But if you’re writing something a little more outside the box, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it might make perfect sense to describe how your setting tastes. Or if your character is outside, you can use touch to describe what the sun or the wind feels like against their skin. You don’t want to overload your reader with information, but you do want to give them enough so that they can picture what they’re supposed to as accurately as possible.

And that’s what I got for you today! I thought it was pretty interesting to think about the pattern of three in writing and in daily life. I’m sure there are countless more examples, but I think you get the idea.

I guess three is a pretty magical number 🙂

Just keep writing, just keep writing . . .

— Julia

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