Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What do you need to know about the magic of threes?


Close your eyes and think of a number between one and ten.  Umm, now open your eyes so you can read the rest of this post.

Did you pick seven?  If not, you probably picked three or eight.

According to this mathematician, seven was the favourite number from among 44,000 people worldwide.  But the second favourite – maybe not the winner, but the first runner-up – was three.  And I think you will be, too, when you see how much three (3!) has to offer us as writers.

Why are threes so powerful? 

Physically, three is the lowest stable number that stands up on its own.  IF you’re building a step-stool, you can’t use just one or two legs.  You’ve got to have at least three.  (Okay, there is such a thing as a one-legged stool, but it’s more for propping your body up than actually sitting and relaxing on!)

Take a look – this is just such a basic, iconic design because of the central human assumption:  three = stable.


[source:  Nerijp via Wikimedia]

Even if you don’t think about it actively, your brain knows this, and so does your reader’s.  We trust threes in a way we do with few other numbers (even seven!).

Count your way through these 3 crucial principles of threes that will help you write better, stronger kids’ books.

1) The Three-Act Structure of your story

The three-act structure is a model used in screenwriting, writing and storytelling.  All it means is that your fictional story has three parts.  In fancier circles, these parts are sometimes the “Setup,” the “Confrontation” and the “Resolution.”  But I usually just call them Beginning, Middle and End. Winking smile

A typical 3-act story is based around what’s known as “rising action.”  You get more and more tense about what’s going to happen.  You feel more deeply invested. 

Most of us love to read 3-act stories, getting more wound up as the story inexorably pulls us along.  We are helpless in the hands of a great writer.


[diagram © UfofVincent via Wikimedia]

Which is why it’s a darn shame that so many writers hate the 3-act structure.  Despise the thought of writing this type of story.  Hate the idea that they’re constrained by a pre-set structure.  They refuse to conform, and they don’t want their story to be predictable.

“I want to write something different,” so many authors say.  Unfortunately, they’re going against the way our brains are built.

Unfortunately, people a lot smarter than me seem to believe that – just like our fascination with the number 3 – we are hard-wired to enjoy this type of story.  A 3-act story is just more satisfying than any other model.  We don’t know why we love them so much – we just do.

Quick trick:

Just because your story follows a 3-act “formula” doesn’t mean it’s “formulaic,” bland or trite.  Many artists follow the “formula” of putting a brush with paint to canvas, paper or some other surface.  They’ll still end up with a painting that’s completely unique, even if they’re using a tactic thousands of artists have used before.  Use the idea of formula to check on your story and make sure you’re turning the crank, bumping up the jeopardy for your main character as your reader gets deeper and deeper into the story (here’s one good way).

2) “Rule of thirds” – your three-part middle act

The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information.

Many classic stories feature a middle that revolves around a theme of threes, including the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the A Christmas Carol.  Any fairy tale where there’s an older son, middle son and younger son who set out to seek their fortune follows this model.

In most classic stories that follow this model, the hero (or somebody else) fails the first two times.  Perhaps the challenge gets harder and harder each time – the hill gets steeper, the enemy more powerful.  After two failures, it seems like all is lost.  Then, the third time, the hero steps in, or steps up to the plate, summoning all he or she has has inside. 

A win at this point is SO much more satisfying than if he’d got it on the first try.

Think about those disappointing first two strikes in baseball – and then the resounding crack of the bat against the ball as the batter hits a home run.

And who could forget this classic of first-grader comedy?

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say "banana" again?

Wherever you find them, and use them in your own work, threes are more dramatic, stronger, funnier.


Quick Trick

Remember the classic Mars bar slogan, “A Mars bar a day, at work, rest and play.”  Or the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”  Just using adjectives like this, in groups of threes, lets you harness this “rule of threes” in a little way to make your story resonate with readers and help your message stick.

3) “Rule of thirds” – your book’s layout

Every photographer knows how powerful threes are.  They affect our eyes and mind very, very deeply.

This magical animated GIF will show you the power of threes when you’re composing an image – or a page of a children’s book.

File:Rivertree thirds md.gif

[animated gif by User:Moondigger via Wikimedia]

Photographers and artists have known this for centuries:  put the important stuff where the THIRDS are.  You can divide any page into thirds, both horizontally and vertically.  The lines are important, and the axes, the points of intersection, are even MORE important.

imageHere’s a sample 2-page spread from David Wiesner’s book Art & Max showing how Wiesner is following the rule of thirds carefully. 

See how he’s lined up the easel right along one of the vertical “thirds”?  (A 2-page spread counts as a single page, visually, because your eyes take the whole thing in at once.)


(from Design of the Picture Book)

Quick Trick

Try out this “rule of thirds” on your book’s cover.  Where are the horizontal lines?  Where are the vertical lines?  Where do they intersect?  Those intersections are the most powerful points on the page.  Do they contain valuable information?  Those are the spots that potential readers will see first.  Make sure the information at those four intersections is clear and sends exactly the right message.  In general, text in the upper half should be big and bold, while text near the bottom, once you’ve drawn readers’ eyes down, can afford to be a little smaller.

Remember the expression, “Good things come in threes?”  What about “third time’s the charm?”

Well, forget about those expressions.  I’ve got a better one for you.

Since moving to Israel, I’ve learned the best, most awesome version of this saying, and made it my own.  Know what they say here instead?  “Third time, ice cream.” 

Mmm… Ice cream… now that’s what I call thinking like a true children’s-book writer!

1 comment:

  1. I believe the rule of thirds for pictures is just a simplification of the golden mean. Anyone can remember thirds - but not many can remember one to (square root of 5 plus 1) divided by two. (It's 1 : 1.618 instead of 1 : 2 for thirds, so the golden mean has the line a little closer to the middle, smack in the middle of the canvas in Wiesner's picture.)


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