The Power of Three

When I was at the TCRWP’s Writing Institute a couple of weeks ago, there was a buzz about the power of three. Funny how I’ve been in and around lots of writing-related professional development in the past five years and have never heard anything about the power of three until mid-August. I heard it first from Emily Butler Smith, my morning section leader, who pointed out all of the times Barbara Robinson used three things to make a point in her story “Alligator Mystique,” which can be found inside of But That’s Another Story. Then, I heard the power of three mentioned by Mary Ehrenworth in a morning keynote address. Finally, my friend, who was taking M. Colleen Cruz’s afternoon section said Cruz talked about the power of three in her section.

By the time I returned home to Pennsylvania I was captivated by the power of three and began to notice it in my daily life, not just in my writing. In fact, I noticed I’ve been grouping things in three around my house. And then, yesterday afternoon, my neighbor’s daughter called out to me as I came out of the house, “Ms. Stacey, this is the third time I’ve seen you today!” There really is something captivating about the number three!

Just what is the power of three in writing? Here are some ways I’ve noticed writers using threes in books:

  • Commas in Lists (a little grammar-teaching bonus): Whether it’s a simple list of three items or an elaborate list, many writers create lists of items, character traits, etc. in threes. Tuck in the teaching of commas in lists when you teach your students how to create a long or a short list.
  • Internal Thoughts: When a character thinks about what do, sometimes the options come in groups of three.
  • Same Start:  The author begins with the same word or phrase in three separate, consecutive sentences for emphasis.
  • Same Word Repeated:  Done for emphasis (e.g., really, really, really or yes, yes, yes).
  • Setting Details: Often revealed with three vivid adjectives or three vivid phrases that describe.

I spent a half hour going through picture books in my basement; in search of books that included the power of three at least two times in the text (I could have gone for three times in the text, but I felt that would have been getting a little carried away with the number of three!). Here’s a short list of some books I found that use threes in a variety of ways:

  • 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy
  • Alex and Lulu: Two of a Kind by Lorena Siminovich
  • Good-bye, Curtis by Kevin Henkes
  • Mutt Dog! by Stephen Michael King
  • See the Ocean by Estelle Condra
  • The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco
  • Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding by Lenore Look