Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Write to the Power of Three

Did I ever tell y’uns about the time Jack met that ol’ hunchity woman? Well, Jack weren’t the first to see ‘er. Naw, sir. She’d come a-callin’ when Will was a-fixin’ to go seek his fortune and when Tom headed off to make his own way in th’ world.

And so begins “Jack Learns Old from New,” an Appalachian tale I got to tell at a pioneer festival this past weekend. It’s one of my favorites because it’s so typical of a story from our eastern highlands: it's ancient, with its roots in the British Isles; it’s essentially two stories, fused to form one; and it contains motifs from the Bible and classical literature.

Threes abound. Each part of the story has a three-act structure. Jack's mama has three sons. The old hunchity woman pays three visits. In the course of the story, Jack’s Mama makes three trips to a neighbor lady’s house to get three things to give her three sons for their journeys. In the second part of the tale, Jack must perform three tasks (including the cleaning of a barn that hasn’t been cleaned in seven years) to prove himself worthy of the king’s gal’s hand. Once he does that and the wedding is about to take place, he learns that the king actually has not one, not two, but three daughters. Since Jack cannot see their faces, which are covered with heavy veils, he has to choose the one he wants to wed using other criteria.

Folklore, faerietales, and literature are replete with threes: three bears, three wishes, three princesses, three rings, three daughters, three sons, three visitors, three beggars, three horses. 

Writers and public speakers know about the power of three. When I lead a writing or a storytelling workshop, one of the first things I tell attendees is that each story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning introduces the characters, the setting, and the dilemma. It sets the tone for the work, hopefully gains the reader's sympathy for the protagonist, and propels the reader into the body of the story. Act II is the middle, the muddle where the main plot thickens and sub-plots flourish. Through a series of events, including a smattering of crises, the protagonist's character and relationships with other characters develop and tension builds toward the climax, the showdown, the final--and most intense--battle. Act III brings resolution to the primary conflict. The battle is won (unless it's literary fiction, in which case the battle may be lost or left in limbo), loose ends are tidied up, and the reader is left satisfied but wishing the story would continue.

Three-act structure is important to non-fiction writing, as well. Over the course of nine years, I wrote for two small newspapers. Though I had to take my turn at covering mundane governmental and school board meetings, features made up the bulk of my writing. Whether the subject of an article was a new sewer project or the blacksmith who collected mule shoes, I used that three-act structure.

Why does it work so well? “Probably because it is in line with how we live our lives,” says James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure. “A three-step rhythm is inherent in much that we do.” Life is a three-act play: we’re born, we live, we die. That summarizes our time on Earth. In the second act, all kinds of wonderful and tragic things happen. There is conflict and camaraderie, love and loss, victory and defeat.

I find myself listing in threes often. In looking back over what I have written here, I see that I've done that several times. The fourth paragraph even has a catalogue of nine examples--three threes! It's natural. Architects know the strongest structures are three-sided. R. Buckminster Fuller recognized that when he developed the geodesic dome. There is strength in threes for the architect of story, as well.


  1. Amen to everything you said.
    A threefold cord is not easily broken.
    As a photographer, we often look for geometric shapes of three in a photo. Triangle posing, pyramid, etc.
    Of course, we can't forget three offices (father, son, spirit) which make up one God. :)

  2. Thank you for your comment, Kenny, and for the photographer's perspective. And I've always wondered if all of our "threes" harken back to the Holy Trinity. Even our Earth is a triunity of sky, sea, and land. Fascinating.

    Because of Christ,