The Power of Three

By Jessica Cooper

In an article in The Writer’s Chronicle by Richard Goodman, he talks about an unexpected feature that lies beneath the surface of the story to bring it to life: symmetry.  Not symmetry as it’s usually interpreted—two identical sides—rather an atypical symmetry which creates the music of a novel, the way the language flows in a way that is pleasing to the ear.  It may include any pattern of odd numbered items, but in particular patterns of three: three names, three similar words, or three items in a list.  Something about patterns of three makes the written word sound pleasant and symmetrical.  Poetic, even.

It takes me back to elementary grammar when my Language Arts teacher would ask:

Image courtesy of Jeremy Brooks (

“What are the parts of speech in this sentence?”

I’d answer: “I have no idea.”

“Then how do you know it’s correct?”

And me: “Because it sounds right?”

So then, do writers have a natural sense of what just sounds right?  What exactly is the connection between music and language that makes a passage work?  I liked Goodman’s idea and decided to examine several young adult novels on my own bookshelf to see if this type of symmetry in writing was common even in YA literature.  There are many ways odd-numbered patterns appear in the opening pages. Sometimes it’s obvious.  For instance, the number of characters introduced, or the number of items in a list.  Other times the patterns can be slightly elusive.  I encourage you to search for them in your favorite author’s works.   Try John Green, MT Anderson and Libba Bray for starters.

Meanwhile, here are two strong examples of the usage of three:

Listing is a natural way of getting important facts out there, specifically in the opening, when the goal is to hook a reader without spewing pages of back story or exposition.   The opening line in Jandy Nelson’s “The Sky is Everywhere” is a good example  of how a list of information can be functional, musical and intriguing.

“Gram is worried about me. It’s not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She’s is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.”

Nelson tells us quite a bit about the protagonist, Lennie, as well as her Gram, mother and sister in this opening paragraph.  She unveils sixteen years of back story in three sentences.  And the list of the second sentence—which contains three facts—has fabulous rhythm to it.  The combination of varied sentence length and the rhythms within each sentence, gives this paragraph a lyrical quality especially noticed when read out loud.   Nelson’s use of three is not only effective in dishing out information, it’s descriptive, humorous and flows effortlessly.

In Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”, which In Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”, which Thief” is full of language patterns that serve character and story.    Zusak uses odd numbered techniques throughout this free-form novel, but with regards to word choice, he expertly writes as the voice of Death:  “I can be amiable.  Agreeable.  Affable.  And that’s only the A’s.”  Death is aware of his three-pronged, alphabetically cynical list of three personality traits, which makes this intriguing for the reader.   And especially so for a reader who is also a writer looking for patterns in successful books.  It makes me wonder if Zusak knew I’d be writing this essay.

At first thought, picking apart the opening of a novel with regards to patterns of three seems a bit obsessive, but it’s rather fascinating to see how frequently odd-numbered techniques appear on the very first page of a book and how they truly make a paragraph pleasing to the ear as well as to the story. I challenge you to pull some books off your own shelf and see if you can find any odd-numbered patterns and read them out loud to hear the effect.  Or better yet, if you write, see if you’ve done this without even knowing it!


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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Jim says:

    Here’s a good example from John Green’s “TFIOS”; notice the three participial phrases after the colon (sorry for getting all grammatical): “Everyone sat and Patrick began his retelling of his ball-lessness, and I fell into the routine of Support group: communicating through sighs with Isaac, feeling sorry for everyone in the room and also everyone outside of it, zoning out of the conversation to focus on my breathlessness and the aching.”

    Colum McCann (“Let the Great World Spin”) is a master of this too.

  2. Jess says:

    It’s amazing how many patterns like these you can find. Thanks for adding those examples!

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