- An Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman go into a bar
- Ready, steady, go
- The three act structure
- The popularity of trilogies in fiction
The number three recurs again and again throughout writing. Whether it is in the choice of words to create a pleasing sentence or the wider structure beneath a script, the number three seems inescapable as a stylistic and structural choice.
How often, when writing, have you found yourself desperately tying to find another word or phrase to create a triumvirate of ideas? There are a number of reasons why three is so stylistically satisfying when creating stories or putting words together. Here are, naturally, three of them.
Rhythm is important in good writing. Shakespeare wrote every line with a strong rhythmic beat and most writers have a sense of the rhythm of their words. Rhythm can turn a dull phrase into one that lilts and sings.
Three is the smallest number that can have a rhythm. Think about it. Tap the table twice – that’s not a rhythm. Tap it three times. Bingo. Rhythm isn’t just the beats but also the spaces in between – you need at least two spaces, and therefore three beats, to create a distinct rhythm. How many different rhythms can you create with three taps of the table?
This rhythm can help bind concepts and words together and add an additional element – timing. Think about the example I gave you in the opening paragraph: ready, steady, go. There are a number of reasons why this phrasing works and therefore became so widely used. One of those reasons is rhythm. The goal of the phrase is not just to impart information, but to do so with pinpoint timing and synchronise multiple listeners to the same moment. To do so, the listener needs to be able to anticipate and be ready for the word “go”. The way the listener does this is by assuming the length of time between the first two words – ready and steady – will be the same between the second two words – steady and go. They are listening for the rhythm.
This is the same reason why we sometimes, playfully, stretch out that second space or change the expected rhythm, to throw them off. “Reeeeeady … steeeeady … … … … GO!”
Even if you choose the other more formal “On your marks … get set … GO!” form, you are still using a group of three to indicate a set rhythm and help the listener prepare for the split second timing of the start of the race.
The speaking clock phone service works in exactly the same way with three beats. “On the third stroke, the time will be …” We can synchronise our clocks and watches because we can anticipate the third beat within the rhythm.
But rhythm isn’t just about functionality and precision in sports. It is also about aesthetics and style. Ready, steady, go is a popular recurring phrase because it also creates a pleasing rhythm within the syllables and the rhyming of ‘ready’ and ‘steady’. You most likely choose words and phrases over others all the time based on rhythm without even realising it. They just sound better to you. And they are – because of the power of three.
2. Beginning, middle and end
Whether talking about the three act structure or the three books in a trilogy, three instinctively feels like the right number when plotting a story. Each of the three pieces – acts or books/films – contribute to the whole by providing that beginning, middle or end. The third Bourne film is quite clearly a final end to a story, wrapping up the last threads that were set in motion in the first film and were explored and aggravated in the second. Although each film can stand alone reasonably well, they are inextricably linked in that structure of three, forming a bigger, more impressive story overall.
Bourne, The Matrix, The two Star Wars Trilogies, the Godfather movies, the X-Men trilogy and many more – all seem to fall naturally into three.
No one ever suggested making The Godfather a quartet of films. In fact, such things are extremely rare. The recent fourth Indiana Jones film was in development hell for twenty years and when it came, didn’t really fit stylistically or narratively with the other three in the eyes of many viewers. The fourth Alien film, Alien Resurrection, felt superfluous after the third film had taken the series full circle and ended with Ripley’s death. The fourth film therefore had to find an (unconvincing) way to bring Ripley back in a story that fails to resonate with anything that had gone before. It feels out of place and is easily the weakest of all the Alien films.
You can’t break the rule of three.
The recent Terminator: Salvation film isn’t really the fourth film in the series, but the first of a second trilogy, quite distinct from the first three films. This is, of course, deliberate.
When plotting out a story, you wouldn’t put two middles into it, would you? The second, or middle, act of a film is where the runaround happens, the overcoming of obstacles, the exploration of the problems and possible solutions. Once this is done, you can’t then add in another act of obstacles and runaround because the audience is now primed for the climax and resolution. Another middle act would be surplus to requirements and would merely delay the story from reaching its destination. This is why the three act structure works – beginning, middle and end. It is also why the trilogy works. Once the second is done, the audience has read two books or seen two films creating and tangling the various plot threads. Patience would begin to wear thin should a third film or book not tie up those threads and provide a sense of completeness.
3. The pattern of three
Just as three is the smallest number needed to create a rhythm, it’s also the smallest number needed for a pattern to emerge. To determine a pattern or sequence between different concepts or words, the relationship between the first and second needs to be reflected a second time between the second and third. They don’t need to be the same relationship, but that variation is what creates the specific pattern.
For example; in a sequence of numbers – eg; 2, 4, 8 – the difference between the numbers is not the same. Yet, a similarity is that each is double the previous number. That is the pattern in the sequence. You would not be able to determine a specific pattern from only seeing two of those numbers.
Let’s apply that to writing.
In copywriting, a popular and persuasive technique is the Socratic method, named after Socrates. This method uses three – and always three – questions that are related to each other.
- Do you feel tired, even after a good night’s sleep?
- Are you not eating as well as maybe you should?
- Do you need more energy to achieve the things you need to do each day?
You need Brand X Multivitamins!
Why three? Because that is the minimum required to create a list and therefore a pattern of agreement in the reader if they belong to the target audience.
When he or she reads your conclusion – that you should buy my multivitamins – they are more likely to agree, having been preconditioned to do so by the previous pattern.
The pattern of three works in other ways too – particularly when the third statement or response differs from the previous two, as it needs to in creating a joke.
The Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman jokes that were so common when I was growing up work because of the power of three. Yet so many joke forms revolve around three protagonists or three concepts.
Typically, the first protagonist will do or say something, usually quite normal or expected. The second will also do something – not necessarily the same but equally normal or expected. The third – and this used to be the Irishman, so I apologise to any Irish reading this – would break the pattern by doing something unexpected or ridiculous – thereby creating a laugh.
The following joke is reproduced from Wikipedia’s page exploring the origins of the “Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman” form.
An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman are all builders working on a bridge.
The Englishman opens his lunch-box and says, “If I get one more tuna sandwich, I’m going to jump off this bridge.”
The Scotsman opens his lunch box and says, “If I get one more ham sandwich, I’m going to jump off this bridge.”
The Irishman then says, “If I get one more egg sandwich, I’m going to jump off this bridge.”
The next day, all three get the same lunch, all three jump off the bridge, and all three die.
At their funeral, the Englishman’s wife says, “If only I’d known he didn’t like tuna.”
The Scotsman’s wife says, “If only I’d known he didn’t like ham.”
The Irishman’s wife says, “I don’t understand it. He made his own sandwiches.”
The joke creates the expectation of a pattern with the first two elements (the first two wives say the same thing about their husband’s sandwiches) but then surprisingly overturns that pattern in the last element (the third wife reveals the Irishman made his own). The power of three.
Four breaks the spell
So if three is the minimum number required for rhythm and for pattern, why not four, or five? Brevity. Additional elements, just like additional acts, are unnecessary. Your writing is out to achieve a goal. If three is the minimum number required to achieve that goal, then any other numbers aren’t even worth contemplating.
We instinctively know much of the above without ever thinking about it. We know a sentence feels right or a story flows well or a joke will make people laugh. Yet, I bet, when you revise your work, you’ll find groups and patterns of three. I am sure there are many other examples of three in writing as well as many more reasons why three is so powerfully wired into our brains. Got any to add?
Trevor Hampel says
Very interesting article.
Are we ‘wired’ from an early age to expect the three elements?
Examples “Three little pigs’, ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’, ‘Three Billy goats gruff’
There are many more examples (not just three!) cited in the Wikipedia article on ‘The Rule of Three’
Ah, hadn’t even thought of the various fairy tale triumvirates. Again, though, these play on the creation of patterns as in the Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman jokes. With the 3 pigs, for example; a pattern is established with the wolf blowing down the first two houses. then the third house ends the tale by breaking the pattern. It wouldn’t work if the first house was the brick one, nor if there were only two house as a pattern wouldn’t be established before the change.
I don’t think these stories ‘wire’ us to think in threes. They use three for the same reasons as everything else – structural brevity.
Oh – and thanks for the Wikipedia article. I hadn’t seen it. Some further interesting thoughts.
Robert Dagnall says
For more than you’d ever want to know on this subject:
Quite possibly the most exhaustive analysis of “trichotomy” in American culture, by folklorist Alan Dundes (finally my degree in Anthropology proves useful!):
“The Number Three in American Culture.” In Alan Dundes (ed.), Every Man His Way: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
I was just discussing this with someone the other day. 3 is pretty much the ‘perfect number’ in writing in my opinion. As a children’s author specialising in picture books I have limited words and limited space to use. Three events, three descriptors or three emotions often appear in my work. I will keep on doing so because it just feels ‘right’ – and its widespread use suggests it works 🙂
Must not forget: maid, mother & crone.
Or for the patriarchy: father, son & the holy ghost.