Newsletter essays on writing

Power of Three

By Marjorie Bicknell Johnson

No, not a Roman triumvirate; not 3, 9, 27, 81; and not the witches in Macbeth—but the power of three in writing.

The “power of three” in writing means using a series of three words, phrases, or ideas. Using a series of three helps the reader understand what you are writing, helps him or her organize the information mentally, and creates a sense of urgency. Using a series of more than three becomes cumbersome and less easy to understand. Using a series of two ideas simply doesn’t have the same impact.

The number three has a magical importance in cultural and spiritual practices around the world. It’s no accident that the number three is pervasive throughout some of our greatest stories, fairy tales, and myths. It’s no coincidence that some of the most famous quotes throughout history are structured in three parts. It’s no surprise that the rule of three works wonders in the world of comedy—set-up, anticipation, and punch line.

It all comes down to the way we process information. While I don’t pretend to understand why, the brain seems to be hard-wired to group information in threes. We have become proficient at pattern recognition, and three is the smallest number of elements that can form a pattern. Comedians exploit the way our minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track—and make us laugh.

Information presented in groups of three sticks in our heads better than other clusters of items. Orators use the power of three: “Blood, sweat, and tears”; “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”; “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Politicians know the rule of three: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”; “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish with my country.” Real estate has “Location, location, location”; safety posters advise, “Stop, look, and listen;” movie titles include “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”

Things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. Have you ever wondered

  • What the three little pigs, Goldilocks and the three bears, and the three wise men have in common?
  • Why the three-act structure is the dominant approach to screenwriting?
  • Why three bullet points are more effective than two or four?

Think in terms of three when crafting your content, and you’ll likely end up with a more engaging outcome. If at first you don’t succeed, remember—the third time’s the charm.

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