Saturday, 14 April 2012

Mysterious Number Three by Paeony Lewis

What is it about the number three in storytelling? There are traditional tales such as The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Then there are the lesser-known tales: The Three Sillies, The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, The Three Snake Leaves, and so many more.

Even if three isn’t in the title, three still sneaks into countless fairy stories. Rumpelstiltskin gives the miller’s daughter three spinning wishes and she has three guesses at his name. Cinderella goes to three balls and there are three sisters. Jack steals three treasures from the giant at the top of the beanstalk.

How about contemporary picture books? That number three sneaks in again. There are three owls in Martin Waddell’s classic Owl Babies. Whilst in the deep dark wood a little mouse meets three animals (a fox, owl and snake) in Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo. And I've just realised I have three young bunnies in Hurry Up, Birthday.

Even if there aren’t three characters, then things happen three times. Winnie the Witch waves her wand again, and again and again . Helen Cooper’s Bear Under the Stairs is fed one day with bananas, bacon and bread. Another day it’s hazelnuts haddock and honey. And the door is always shut with a wham, bang and thump.

From No More Biscuits
So why three? Why, in writing, is it called The Rule of Three or Magic Three? Perhaps because three times is a pattern. Two can be a coincidence, but three is something more. It’s more satisfying. It’s the beginning, middle and end. It flows and has rhythm.

If a fairy casts one spell and it doesn’t succeed, then you’re setting up tension. If she casts the spell again and it succeeds, then it feels a bit of an anti-climax. But if she fails a second time, things are getting tenser. Will she succeed on the third attempt? We hold our breath… Yes! Ah ha, but what if she fails again, surely the tension will rise further? Maybe, or will it start to get boring?

Mind you, sometimes I find the rule of three can be too predictable, especially in films. You just know the hero will try once, twice and then succeed on the third attempt. Yawn. However, perhaps this predictability was helpful when stories were told around the fire, hundreds of years ago. You need a clear story structure to follow a story told orally, and it also helps you to remember it for another night. This might be why three is also popular with stand-up comedians: Three men went into a bar; an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman…


So in storytelling, three can provide a satisfying pattern. Whether it’s the three Norns in Norse mythology; the three Anglo-Saxon monsters battled by Beowulf; or the Greek Three Fates, Graces or Furies. However, it doesn’t stop there.

In art there’s a rule of thirds. Pythagoras called three the perfect number. We also have three primary colours (red, blue and yellow). In Christianity there is the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. On the third day Jesus rose from the dead. In Hinduism you have the Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. Three is our past, present and future. Birth, life and death. Veni, vidi, vici. Symbolic three is everywhere.

In our writing, is it lucky three? Other numbers are endowed with symbolism, although three does appear to be particularly popular in Western writing. So should we use it in our picture books? Why not, if it works? We probably do it subconsciously. But if we use it too much, will the magic of three wane?

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

Paeony Lewis is a children's author.
http://www.paeonylewis.com/

18 comments:

  1. Great post. I must admit I find myself falling into using the number three all the time, even when I try not to. I did read somewhere (not sure where) that the Native American Indians prefer the number 4 (how true that is I don't know). Mmm perhaps that's something I need to research - is the number three a European thing?

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  2. Just clicked on the 'symbolic three' link - perhaps I'll start me research there!

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    1. Thanks, Lynne. When researching this blog I found out amazing amounts of intriguing stuff. But it wasn't necessarily directly relevant and I had to restrain myself from writing the longest blog in the world!
      Yes, I suspect that other numbers are used, although I read that in SE Native American tribes the cosmos is divided into 3 parts: the upper world, this world, and the lower world (sounds similar to a certain other religion!).
      The number three appears to have most significance in western and asian cultures.

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  3. Great post, Paeony! What's amazing is how we naturally fall into these patterns - well, we exist within them - so that when we write we may use the magic three without ever realising it. Now I'm going back to click the links...

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    1. Thanks, Jenny! I'd been writing fiction for several years before I heard of the 'rule of three'. When I did hear of it, I thought, 'Ah, it's everywhere, so how come I missed it, even though I use it?!'.

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  4. Fascinating, Paeony. Three events create just the right amount of dramatic tension in a short narrative, don't they. More seems to make the narrative tension drain away. Events become list-like and robotic. This really shows up when I read picture books with my son. Your point about oral history is central. Three works perfectly in a story when you speak it out loud. That's why I think it's vital for a writer to read work loud, as if it were a performance, because weaknesses become glaring. Thank you for this. I've never thought about it before.

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    1. Yes, three seems to flow. I agree it's good to hear your writing read aloud, though it can be strange if someone else reads it as they don't read it the same way (which I suppose is the entire point of doing it!). Thanks, Moira.

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  5. Excellent post! I've used the rule of three forever but never stopped to analyze it.

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    1. Yes, somehow three feels just right.

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  6. I'm partial to the number five, myself. But three is a thing of beauty, to be sure.

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    1. Ah, I notice five is the number of 'balance' - perhaps that's why you're partial to it?!

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  7. I like the idea that various numbers have assorted significances: for example, in sacred geometry three is the number of the divine, and four of the human, wherefore seven is universal...

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    1. Yes, it's all so intriguing. I found myself clicking link after link to find out more about the symbolism of numbers. Other numbers are also popular in traditional storytelling, but three is the simplest pattern.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading your round-up of uses around the world. So thanks Paeony for sharing your research and giving us lots of prompts about where to find out more.

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  9. Yes, it feels so natural to use the rule of three - thanks for explaining why and getting me link clicking.

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  10. Thanks for the post. I've certainly used it throughout Don't Panic, Annika and someone analysed the book online in terms of its structure and the rule of three came up. I usually over-write picture books in a first draft and I've often dropped a third 'something' in order to reduce the word count only for other writers critiquing it to say it flow better if only there were a third 'something'... As long as we don't do it just because we should, then it does come across well in many books. And I like what you say about the oral tradition of storytelling. Thanks.

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  11. Very interesting! There's also a rule of three in planting, isn't there - you plant in groups of 3 - or less often 5 - so you can see the second row between the gaps in the first, and so on. Very interesting thought about three goes/times raising the stakes as far as tension goes. Thanks, Paeony!

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  12. Thanks for the interesting comments, everyone. Sue, long ago when I had a large garden, I too used to plant in groups of three or five. Perhaps it's the lack of visual symmety in the number that makes it look more pleasingly natural. I suspect it's the same with flower arranging. Three flowers in a vase looks good, four doesn't, five does...

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