The Power of Three

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The Power of Three

What I tell you three times is true — “The Hunting of the Snark”, Lewis Carroll

Three. 3. III.

No matter how you write it down, threes show up in speeches, in slogans, and most definitely in stories. Wikipedia informs us that the importance of this number extends to fields as varied as government, photography, and economics.
One reason that threes have this power for us is that we are predisposed to recognize patterns, and three is the bare minimum of instances needed to form a pattern. Or, as Ian Fleming’s villain Auric Goldfinger put it:

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

Some common Examples

Here are some well-known examples of threes showing up in:

  • Slogans and sayings
    • “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”
    • “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”
    • “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”
  • Groups of people or characters
    • Caesar, Pompey, & Crassus; Lenin, Stalin, & Trotsky; Moses, Aaron, & Miriam;
    • Three Little Pigs, Three Bears, Three Billy Goats Gruff;
    • Three Stooges, Three wise men, Three Musketeers
  • Language itself
    • First, Second, and Third Person;
    • Past, Present, and Future Tenses;
    • Subject, Verb, and Object

An example from a master

Take a look at how Aaron Sorkin’s character, wordsmith Toby Ziegler uses the power of three when admonishing the White House staff sbout a leak

In case you missed them, here are the ways he employs the power of three:

  • We’re a team
    • We win together; we lose together
    • We celebrate and we mourn together
    • Defeats are softened and victories sweetened because we did them together.
  • (Pause)
    • It’s great to be in the know;
    • It’s great to have the scoop, to have the skinny
    • To be able to go to a reporter and say, “I know something you don’t know.”
  • (Pause)
    • I’m not gonna have a witch hunt.
    • I’m not gonna huff and puff.
    • I’m not gonna take anyone’s head off
  • I’m simply gonna say this:
    • You’re my guys
    • And I’m yours
    • And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare

Not to take anything away from Aaron Sorkin, but let’s see how The Bard does it. Shakespeare employs the Power of Three in a host of ways.

In speech:
“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, resolve itself into a dew.” Hamlet is expressing the same idea three ways, as Mark Antony does in his famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”, or as Macbeth does in his simple repetition of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorow”. Simple, yes, but powerful.

Shakespeare uses a three-fold repetition in dialogue as well as monologue. Here’s an example from Julius Caesar:
Act I, scene 2

Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.
Caesar. What man is that?
Brutus. A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Caesar. Set him before me; let me see his face.
Cassius. Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
Caesar. What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.
Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.

After all that, you get the idea that the ides of March is going to be important.

Threes also show up in Shakespeare’s plots. In Macbeth, we of course have the three witches, but also the encounter in Act IV, Scene 1 where the witches conjure three apparitions that offer up three predictions. The apparitions also use the power of three when making their predictions which are, needless to say, fulfilled in the Ending Payoff.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia has three suitors who are given the task of solving the riddle of three boxes.

Other masters of language

Story writers are not unique in using the power of the number three in the written or spoken word. Governments and public speakers provide us with numerous examples:

  • The American Declaration of Independence:
    • “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
    • “We mutually pledge our Lives, our Fotunes, and our sacred Honor.”
  • Abraham Lincoln:
    • “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.”
    • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.”
    • “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God give us to see the right”
  • George Orwell’s Sacred Plrinciples of INGSOC (1984)
    • Freedom is Slavery;
    • War is Peace;
    • Ignorance is Strength
  • Benjamin Disraeli
    • “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”
  • Sir Winston Churchill
    • “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”
    • “Never before in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
  • Gen. Douglas MacArthur
    • “Duty – Honor – Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be”
  • Gaius Julius Caesar
    • “I came, I saw, I conquered”
    • “All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.”

The Three Movements of Story

The most obvious use of the Power of Three in stories is that we think of them as divided into three parts: Beginning, Middle, and End. This is the “three act structure” you hear so much about, and it goes all the way back to Aristotle.
In Story Grid, we call these three divisions the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff. Here’s the way Shawn Coyne explains these terms in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know:

It’s very useful to remember that the BEGINNING is all about HOOKING your reader…getting them so deeply curious and involved in the Story that there is no way they’ll abandon it until they know how it turns out.
The MIDDLE is about BUILDING progressive complications that bring the stress and pressure down so hard on your lead character(s) that they are forced to take huge risks so that they can return to “normal.”
The ENDING is the big PAYOFF, when the promises you’ve made from your HOOK get satisfied in completely unique and unexpected ways.
STORY distilled is…HOOK, BUILD, PAYOFF. That’s it.

Now, there’s no a priori reason we should think of stories that way. There are methods that teach 4-act, 5-act, 7-act structures, and writers find them useful. Shakespeare in particular is known for using five acts. In the final analysis, however, these methods are overlays on top of the three basic “movements” (I’ve stolen that label from fellow Story Grid Editor Valerie Francis).

This way of thinking in terms of Beginning-Middle-End is not just confined to stories, but seems to be a ubiquitous human trait

  • Religion:
    • The Greek myths have the Three Fates: Clotho, who spins out the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures out the length of thread; Atropos, who cuts it. Beginning, Middle, End.
    • The Hindu religion has a triple deity known as Trimurti, consisting of: Brahma the Creator; Vishnu the Preserver; Shiva the Destroyer. Beginning, Middle, End.
  • A chess game is divided into
    • the Opening, where the pieces are developed for the battle ahead;
    • the Middle Game, where most of the action takes place;
    • the End Game, when most of the pieces are off the board and the final battle takes place.
  • And Christopher Priest tells us :“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts.
    • The first part is called ‘The Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.
    • The second act is called ‘The Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.
    • That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.”

And a story is certainly a kind of magic.

The Threshold Guardian

Sometimes a hero has to fight a threshold guardian. Sometimes the guardian requires a password.
But sometimes they pose a riddle. The Sphinx’s famous riddle in the Oedipus myth has three parts: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?”
Instead of one riddle, the Guardian may ask three questions, as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

(By the way, the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle is “Man”, and the last capital of Assyria was Nineveh. You’re on your own about the swallow.)

The Three Trials

Shawn Coyne recommends that you put your protagonist through three trials. He didn’t pull that number out of a hat. Once again, it’s about the power of three.

The Three Wishes granted by the genie or talisman is a classic example of three trials, best exemplified by the short story “The Monkey’s Paw”.

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a masterwork in employing the power of three. Consider:

  • In order to save Buttercup from her kidnappers, Westley (AKA The Dread Pirate Roberts) must
    • Best Inigo Montoya at swordplay;
    • Render Fezzik the Giant unconscious;
    • Outwit Vizzini in a deadly game.
  • Having done so, he and Buttercup now flee from Prince Humperdink into the Fire Swap, where they must avoid:
    • The Fire Geysers;
    • The Lightning Sand;
    • The ROUSs (Rodents of Unusual Size).
  • Unfortunately, the couple can’t evade Humperdink. Buttercup is taken to the castle to marry the prince, and Westley is tortured to death (mostly). In order to rescue Buttercup, Westley must:
    • Recover (with help from his friends and Miracle Max) from being “mostly dead”;
    • Break into the castle;
    • Win a final confrontation with Humperdink.

Three trials, each with its own set of three challenges. You could do worse than to spend some time studying the story’s construction.

The Five Commandments, and the Power of Three

Oh, yeah, I could hear you mumbling, “But Story Grid has five commandments, not three.”
True enough.
Remember how I said the 5-act structure is an overlay on the three movements of Beginning, Middle, End? Let’s return to Shakespeare and examine Hamlet, a five Act play, in terms of both the Five Commandments and the Three Movements.

  • The Beginning Hook
    • The Global Inciting Incident takes place here. In fact, every story’s Global Inciting Incident (GII) had better take place in the Beginning Hook. In this case, the GII is Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost. The Beginning Hook comprises all of Act I, which takes place in a little over 24 hours. Everything in this Act leads up to the GII.
  • The Middle Build
    • Here we have Global Progressive Complications ending in a Turning Point. Some of these complications are:
      • Hamlet’s feigned madness, and the concerns that it causes (Act II)
      • The play within a play (Act III)
      • Hamlet kills Polonius (Act III). This is the point of no return.
      • Verbal sparring about Polonius’ body, leading to:
      • Hamlet being sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry sealed orders for Hamlet’s execution (Act IV, Scene 4). This is the Global Progressive Complication Turning Point.
      • Remarkably, the entire Middle Build takes place in a single day.
  • The Ending Payoff
    • The Global Crisis Question is when Hamlet discovers Claudius’ orders to have him killed and must decide what to do about it. This is during the voyage to England, and takes place offstage between Scenes 4 and 5 of Act IV, so whether you choose to place it at the end of the Middle Build or the beginning of the Ending Payoff can be your own Crisis Question.
    • The Global Climax. There’s lots going on in the rest of Act IV, but the Climax is when Hamlet returns. This is revealed in Act IV, Scene 6, but we don’t actually see him until the beginning of Act V. He has undergone an apotheosis, discarding his “antic disposition” and is no longer ambivalent about killing Claudius.
    • The Global Resolution. The final scene (Act V, Scene 2) where all the major players who aren’t already dead are killed. Hamlet, now transformed, bequeaths the throne of Denmark to Prince Fortinbras of Norway as he dies.

See? Five Acts, Five Commandments, Three major movements.

The Three Part Value Shift

Perhaps the most important column in the Story Grid Spreadsheet is the one labeled “Value Shift”. You know, the one that says something like “ Safe to Unsafe” or “Bored to Excited.” The one you have the most trouble with. (For a deeper dive into Value Shift, check out Valerie Francis’ excellent Fundamental Fridays article: https://storygrid.com/value-shift-101/ )
It’s easy to think that the value shift is only about two things, the value at the beginning of the scene and the one at the end. So where does the number “three” come in?

To answer that, I’ll illustrate with an analogy from computer science. A foundational concept in computing is the trio:


This basic idea informs every level of computing, from a single command to an entire system.

Let’s say you want the square root of 2. The diagram would look like this:

You probably see where I’m headed with this analogy. The INPUT to the scene is the Value at the beginning of the scene; the PROCESS is all the actions that take place in the scene; the OUTPUT is the Value at the end of the scene. A diagram of the Safe to Unsafe example might look like this:

Just as the INPUT – PROCESS – OUTPUT paradigm makes it clear what the function of each command is, the same paradigm can clarify what the function of a scene is. It can also help locate where the story has a problem.

You can expand the Value Shift column of your spreadsheet into three. You don’t have to label them with computer terms if you don’t want to, but however you label them the middle column should indicate how the character goes from the initial Value to the final one. You might be tempted to say that the the Story Event or Turning Point column already does that, but that’s not quite the case. Those indicate single events that take place in the scene, but the point of this exercise is that the scene is a process, a sequence of operations on the state of the character that results in them moving from the initial to the final Value.

You can extract these three columns as a separate tool and use it with other Units of Story, doing the same kinds of analysis. (For a discussion of the different Units of Story, see Part 5 of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. You can also search this website, as they’re referred to many time.)

A good resource to help you do this analysis is Leslie Watts’ article on Cause and Effect, https://storygrid.com/cause-and-effect/.

To extend the computer analogy, this is a tool for debugging your story.

Tapping the Power of Three

Wow, that was a lot to take in!
Let’s recap and see how you can apply all this.

Three is a magic number that interacts with our thinking on a variety of levels. There are any number of examples. In fact, my guess is you came up with a few on your own.

Your story MUST have three major movements: the BEGINNING HOOK, MIDDLE BUILD, and ENDING PAYOFF, and each one must perform its function. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. For more on the functions of the three major movements you can check out https://storygrid.com/editor-roundtable-beginning-middle-end/, where Story Grid Editor Valerie Francis goes into the topic in detail.

Other things you can do to use the power of three:

Give the protagonist three sidekicks, as in The Three Musketeers, or three adversaries, as in The Count of Monte Christo. Think Dumas knew something about the power of three?

If you’re looking at how to use the Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey, you might give the protagonist three Mentors, or have a Trickster perform three acts of mischief, or covertly foreshadow the ultimate revelation of a Shapeshifter three times.

Give the protagonist three major trials or challenges. Try your hand at using William Goldman’s device in The Princess Bride, and give each trial three challenges of its own.

Take a leaf from Aaron Sorkin’s script or William Shakespeare’s folio and have your characters use the power of three in their dialogue. I’ve avoided using technical terms here, but a search of the Internet for “hendiatris” and “tricolon” will give you many more examples and insights.

Repeat an important foreshadowing three times. You don’t have to be as blatant as the “beware the ides of March” example, but then again, you can try it.

If a character is someone who deals in predictions or prophecies, have them make three of them, either in one scene, or three separate ones.

Remember that “Vaue Shift” involves three things. That “to” or “->” in your spreadsheet column is important. It’s the process that effects the shift. You can use this understanding to help you “debug” a story’s problems.

Now, you don’t have to make yourself crazy and try to do all of these at once. Just try a few to start with.
Maybe just three.

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Larry Pass

Larry Pass started reading at the age of three and has been reading ever since. Larry earned a B.A. Summa Cum Laude in mathematics and went on to graduate work at M.I.T. where his studies were funded by the National Science Foundation. Larry’s passion for learning is complemented by an equal passion to help others learn and grow.