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Storytelling With the Magic of Threes
by Chris King

If we start to remember the familiar stories of our childhood, or look back on the fairytales collected by the brothers Grimm, or even recall or discover plots and characters in folktales from all over the world, we will notice a universal element — the use of threes. Remember “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and the “Three Little Pigs.” Usually, if someone is given wishes, they are given three wishes. Many tales include three brothers. In this article, I am going to suggest why I think the use of threes in storytelling is so prevalent. But I would also love to hear ideas from you about the whys and hows of using three.

Where do we find the use of “threes?” The number three appears so often, it is almost eerie. Of course, we remember the three Kings of the Orient at the birth of Christ. There are trilogies, triptychs, tripods, triangles, and triathlons. But I am straying from the threes that are related to stories and storytelling. We find threes used as the number of main characters in a story. There are often three special objects. And there are many story plots with three challenges, three turns of events, three hurdles to cross, three choices, three wishes, and on and on. Many of the European folktales revolve around threes, but I have also found many stories from a variety of cultures that use the magic of threes.

How do three characters, three objects, and three actions make a story work? When I started to realize the abundance of threes in stories, I also realized that many of the stories that I enjoy telling, listening to, and reading are loaded with threes. One of my favorites, The Magic Pomegranate, a Jewish tale, tells of three brothers who travel far and wide to find three special gifts. When they meet on the appointed day, the oldest brother has a magic glass, the middle brother a magic carpet, and the youngest brother a magic pomegranate (what’s that?). Using the magic glass, they spy a princess who is sick and dying and whose father, the King, has promised that whoever can cure her will have her hand in marriage and the kingdom. Using the magic carpet, they fly to her side where the youngest brother brings her back to health by sharing the magic pomegranate. The question is who will get her hand in marriage (she can't marry all three)?

Looking for threes, I found so many Grimm’s fairytales that used threes in different ways, I can’t begin to list them all, but a few of my favorites are The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The Three Spinners, and The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack. And a good number of stories begin in a similar fashion to The Three Sons of Fortune: A father once called his three sons to him and gave the first a rooster, the second a scythe, and the third a cat. “I’m already quite old,” he said, “and my death is near. So I want to provide for you before my end. I have no money, and what I‘m giving you now does not seem to be worth much. But everything depends on whether you use these gifts intelligently. Just search for a country where such things are still unknown, and your fortune will be made.” Ready to hear more? You bet.

Why do I think so many stories and storytellers make use of threes? First, I feel that having three characters provides a nice balance, but also enough variety for diversity of types. Big, medium, and small in size. Oldest, middle, and youngest in age. Smart, average, and stupid in intelligence. Lazy, medium worker, and overachiever in industriousness. Already, with these three contrasts in the characters, we can begin to imagine a story. Having three different objects adds interest to the direction of the story, and three different hurdles or events are just enough to build suspense and round out the action. If there are too many characters, objects, or events, we start to lose the train of theme of the story. I have noticed that when a teller tries to add too many extras to a perfectly fine story, the audience gets restless and we all feel like calling out, “Get on with it, already!” Threes seem to create the perfect balance and just the right amount of everything to make a story captivating and memorable. ( note: I know that when I prepare a speech that choosing a theme with exactly three major points is one of the ways to guarantee a successful presentation that is remembered afterward by audience members.

When you work on a story, use the power of threes. Once we have read many, many stories and have experienced the different ways to use the magic of threes, it is time to have some fun and create a story using this magic. Start with the simple formula of three characters (friends, brothers, sisters, animals, insects, flowers, trees), three objects (a ring, a comb, and a mirror; a flute, a rope, and a cane; a blouse, a belt, and a shoe) and three hurdles (a river, a forest, and a mountain; ice, sand, and the ocean; youth, middle age, and old age). Play around with different combinations, and before long you will have an enchanting tale of your own to tell.

Use your imagination, creativity, and joy combined with the power of threes and you will be guaranteed a special and captivating story to tell to every threesome you know.

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