Have you ever noticed that jokes are delivered in threes? First guy does something, second guy does something even bigger, but the third guy delivers the punch line. Or that one knock-knock joke about a banana and an orange, where you really are glad by the third knock that he didn’t say banana. Threes hold power in writing and in life. Beginning, middle, end; sky, land, sea; child, adult, senior.
As I was reading Genesis chapter 8, I noticed Noah sent the dove out three different times in search of dry land. The first time, she returned empty-handed (verse 9). The second time, she brought Noah an olive leaf (verse11). And finally, in verse 12, he sends out the dove and she never returns.
Why include all of that in the text? Why not sum it up that after some time, Noah sent out a dove and she didn’t return? What’s the point? By setting it up this way, I think it adds to the believability and the tension in the story build up. Each time that dove flies away, you hope alongside Noah that it will not return. When it comes back empty-handed, you share in Noah’s fear, hopelessness, disappointment, even claustrophobia. What if the waters never recede? The second time, when the dove returns with the leaf in her beak, you find excitement swells inside of you. “It won’t be long now!” And finally, when she leaves for good, there’s relief and celebration after all the tension dissolves. From riding the storm to watching humanity wiped away, when the dove doesn’t come back you realize that it’s finally over.
Three holds a cadence in our psyche. Three Little Pigs. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
“Two’s company; three’s a crowd.”
“Three strikes, you’re out!”
God even formed us in his image with a spirit, soul (mind/heart), and body matching the Godhead of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
So Noah with his wife and three sons with their three wives (there’s that power of threes again) leave the ark in verse 16. And God commands everyone to be fruitful and multiply, including all the fowl, cattle, and creeping things.
There are threes everywhere in this chapter.
The problem comes when you force the threes, making your writing sound mechanical and formulaic, inorganic in much the same way as someone who is bad at telling jokes missing the punch line.
Where have you used the power of threes naturally in your story? Can you bring it out more to connect with your reader? Do you have a clear opening and closing to the three acts of your narrative? There should be a definitive set up period, confrontation section, and a final resolution.
Let’s really take a look at the power of threes in structure. In the first act, the exposition establishes the main characters and their relationships to the world around them. We are introduced to our protagonist who is forced into Act II through an inciting incident and the point of no return. Three elements: establish, incite, and turning point.
Act II is where the bulk of the story takes place, but without an inciting incident, you and your reader will never arrive here. This should be the longest part of the story and include organic elements of the power of threes. Try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed.
Act III concludes the story with climax, falling action, and resolution. Again, three distinct movements that define this section of a story. Pretty amazing, huh?
Noah’s story continues with the animal sacrifice to thank God for his favor and safety to which God replies with a rainbow to seal his promise that he would never destroy all life again through a flood.
I think it’s fascinating how God makes these promises to mankind, not because we are deserving of them, but “…for man’s sake; for the imagination of mans’ heart is evil from youth.” (Genesis 8:21) Right then, God knew we would soon forget his wrath and punishment, and be right back to our old evil ways before we knew it.
It’s interesting here, with the power of threes, how God decides to wipe out humanity, but saves Noah for a remnant to begin again. Then, he says it later with Moses, how he would kill all the Israelites in the Wilderness whom he’d just delivered out of Egypt because of their blatant disobedience, offering to keep Moses alive and start again. Of course, it doesn’t happen because Moses pleads on behalf of the people, but we still see God’s desire to wipe out sin by destroying mankind on two occasions. Now to the punch line. Finally, the third time is the crucifixion. Here, we witness Jesus bearing the entire sins of humanity into death, separated from his father, on our behalf and battling for Death’s keys three days and three nights. Our resurrected savior is the result of God’s third and final attempt to wipe out sin and death. Try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed. Through the blood of the Lamb, we can all live again. Now that’s the power of threes!
(This is an excerpt from Writing Your Novel, Using the Bible as Your Guide, published by A Writer For Life, LLC, which you can purchase from Amazon as a paperback or ebook. For assistance with writing, editing, publishing and marketing your book, visit awriterforlife.com.)