Numbers make me shudder. They tend to lurk in the boring part of my brain. Although my formal education is in pharmacy—which is all about numbers—my happiest moments are spent tickling the right side of my brain, making it jiggle until the words fall out. I retreat from the rigors of numerical stringency and mathematical regulation every moment I can, to run free among the open fields of word play.
And yet…the numbers follow me wherever I go, like nasty little shadows.
I first noticed the rotten little things when I started querying. I blame it on Query Tracker. The website makes it so easy to obsess over stats and percentages and all ten of those numerals in every possible combination—from response statistics to requests. Getting carried away with the statistics made it infinitely easier to tolerate the agonizing wait for responses.
Although I haven’t queried in a while, I have been writing—and I’ve found that the numbers are still lurking around every corner. Lately though, it hasn’t been a random gang of numerals. It’s been one particular number. Always watching, always waiting, always showing up where I expect no numbers at all.
Three. It seems to be a magic number. (Cue the School House Rock music.)
Why does three seem to show up in nearly every story I write—or read, for that matter? Perhaps it’s because, structurally, three is a very strong number. Think about it: archways and pyramids are based on triangles. So is the system of judo my kids are studying, with triangles present in everything from stances to joint locks. Strength comes in many forms and the number three is a solid presence in that strength.
Three data point give us our location in time and space. Three points on a map show progression. Three legs of a tripod give a camera a level sense of stability, leading to clearer pictures and more solid images.
All of these things--strength, setting, progression, focus--are things we want in all of our studies. It's a universal goal of writers to incorporate these elements into our work.
That School House Rock song is really like an earworm now: three’s a magic number.
The Number Three and Writing
Despite the left-brained quality of numbers, three is present everywhere in our writing. For instance, take a look at the foundation of our stories. No surprise to see the number three echoed throughout basic story structure.
- beginning, middle, end: every story needs them
- three act story arc: it’s how a story moves from beginning to end
- three plot points: it’s what is happening--gives the story a reason to be written.
Look closer into the details of the story you’re writing, and you’ll find threes everywhere. Even the characters themselves work best when we identify the importance of three.
- hero, quest, villain/ hero, heroine, obstacle: the essential cast of players
- goal, motivation, conflict: the blueprint of each character
- romantic triangles: so much more fun when there is no clear choice
- third time’s the charm: what’s better than the near misses the couple experience before landing that first kiss on the third attempt?
- Anaphora: this heavy-hitting device uses repetition to emphasize ideas and increase emotional impact. I could go with any number of brilliant quotes from King or Churchill, but instead I’ll choose a more contemporary example.
"I want her to live. I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize." (Weird Science, 1985)
If that doesn’t illustrate the example of building to a climax, then nothing will. :)
- Epistrophe: similar to anastrophe, but the repetition comes at the end of the sentence.
- Asyndeton: also leads to a building-up effect and reaches maximum impact when three ideas are linked, but their conjunctions omitted. (Many references cite “three or four” ideas but, to me, the fourth can make the sentence too cumbersome.) If you want an example, just re-read the above introduction to rhetoric.
Three is a very important concept when it comes to writing. When in doubt, remember the Rule of Three: omne trium perfectum. “Everything that comes in threes is perfect.”
So, maybe School House Rock did more than come up with a catchy little song. Three really is a magic number (yes it is, it’s a magic number). Maybe the song eventually gets overrun by ranting hoards of digits that stampede mathematically across the rest of the verses, but even that doesn’t subtract from the brilliance of the original idea.
When it comes to writing, three is the most magical number there is…and numbers don’t lie. They're too left-brained to do it convincingly.
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Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press), which has continued with the release of "Blood Rush (Demimonde #2)".