By Janet Fogg
I love three to the depth and breadth and… well, maybe not that much.
But there is a lot of love for three. The Three Stooges. The Three Little Pigs. Musketeers. Kings. Bears. Billy Goats. Wicked Stepsisters. Mice. Three, three, three. I could go on and on.
Let’s start with the Rule of Three. It goes way back. Think about storytelling from Aristotle’s Poetics. A beginning, middle, and end. A progression that creates tension, escalates tension, and then offers a satisfying release. Whew!
Syd Field suggests a three-act structure for screenwriting that’s a simple outline for any storytelling. Setup, confrontation, and resolution punctuated by two plot points or reversals. The first reversal is an event that sends the protagonist on a new pathway. The second is a major event that makes everything look impossible. Works for me.
Giving a speech? Max Atkinson offers examples on the use of three-part phrases, or “claptraps,” to evoke a response in the audience, in his book Our Masters’ Voices. Ah, claptraps, when your speech or story makes an audience applaud.
Tell me a name three times and I’ll likely remember it. Tell me once, maybe not. So if you need to emphasize an idea, tell me three times or use three adjectives.
Then there are all sorts of slogans. “Location, location, location.” “Go, fight, win!” “Veni, vidi, vici.”
Aren’t descriptions more effective in threes? Think of a “three dog night.” On cold nights indigenous Australians would sleep in a hole in the ground embracing a dingo. On colder nights they’d sleep with two dingos, and if the night was raw and freezing it was a “three dog night.” (Or a 1965 band.) But pause for a moment and picture your hero shivering in that deep, cold hole you’ve dug. You want your readers to shiver with him, exhale frosty breath. What's going to best describe that bone-aching cold? One dingo or three?
Now let me think, how many times does Jack climb the beanstalk? On the count of three, let’s all say it together. One. Two. THREE!