The magic number (or, There are no two-sided triangles)
What’s the most magical number of all?
It’s the humble number three. No contest.
Let’s think about it. Get ready, get set, and go: How many strikes are there in baseball? How many judges in a tribunal or governors in a triumverate? How many sides or angles or lustful lovers in a triangle? How many Olympic medalist winners in each sport category? How many branches in American government? How many prongs on a trident? Wheels on a tricycle? Claws on a tridactyl? Dimensions in an IMAX Schwarzeneggar bust-’em-up flick? Top-placing horses in a trifecta? Divine entities in Christianity? Shiny leaves on poison ivy? Fingers on Disney cartoon characters like Micky and Minnie and Daffy? Swordsmen in the Musketeers? Oxygen atoms in trioxide or sulphur atoms in trisulfide? Legs on a tripod? Lines in a poetic triplet? Panels in an ancient triptych? Banks of perspiring rowers on a Roman trireme? Feet on a trivet? Hulls on a trimaran? Vocalists in a trio singing notes in a musical triad? Horns on a triceratops? Novels in a trilogy like my John Hardin tales? Chlorine atoms in a molecule of trichlorophenoxyacetic acid?
How many colors make up the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Senegal, Taiwan, Thailand, Mali, Panama, Lithuania, Norway, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and many others?
In crime solving, cops size up suspects according to motive, means, and opportunity.
Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
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What is the mysterious magic in this lowly number three, and how can we put it to work in our writing to help us win fame, fortune, and immortality?
Well, three is often practically and optimally functional, of course. Three compass bearings from different locations work perfectly to triangulate a position. Three points are the minimum to provide solid support for something like a tripod or a trivet or a kiddie trike. To reach majority decisions with no possibility of a deadlock, three officials or judges or governors is the minimum number required.
But I think there’s another and much simpler reason for three’s popularity. And that is, two is just too few and four is just one too many. Two strikes in baseball would seem not to give a batter a fair chance or the pitcher a decent challenge, but four strikes would somehow be more than any player worth his spikes deserves.
In an uncountable number of fictional stories, the protagonist tries twice to vanquish the foe or climb the cliff or subdue the repulsive alien creatures, only to fail. Trying merely once before achieving success would just be too easy. Having to try more than twice before succeeding could begin to look a little foolish or inept. Only on the third attempt does—and somehow should—the hero or heroine win through.
And that’s an effective secret formula that might as well serve you and me in our writing, too, because the magic of three has not even begun to wear out.
It likely never will.