“Just Right” and The Power of Three

I don’t like to get too personal on this blog (well, except for the whole grief thing, though that’s beginning to seem less personal and more mythic) but today something happened that is making me veer off my normal track.

I needed an antibiotic for a gum infection, and when I went to pay for the order, they told me it would be $67.99. My poor sore tooth about dropped out of my mouth. I’d recently picked up a prescription for antibiotics for someone else, and it came to $11.95. The last time I needed antibiotics, the prescription was $18.50. The pharmacist today said this particular brand was stronger than the others, but when I asked if it was fifty dollars stronger, he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. So I called my dentist’s office. They agreed that this particular brand was strong, but that another, slightly cheaper one would do as well.

I went back to the pharmacist to pick up the new prescription. I was expecting a twenty- or thirty-dollar transaction, but this time the bill came to $4.00. Say, what? A four-dollar drug gives the same result as a sixty-eight dollar drug? I asked the pharmacist if I should stick with the stronger one. Again, no straight answer, just a bit of mumbling about teeth needing a special antibiotic due to the teeth’s connection to the heart.

So, I called my dentist again. Asked if this cheap antibiotic would work as well as the more expensive one. She said, “It should.” Um. Should? Not exactly the answer I was looking for. Finally she admitted they should have prescribed the cheaper one in the first place. So. Here I am with my $4.00 antibiotic that seems as underpriced as the first seemed overpriced, and it makes me itchy. Where’s the third option, the “just right” one?

“Just right” is the rule that is ingrained in us. We learned the power of three as kids via the story of the three bears. First too much, then too little, and finally, just right. The story would have been completely different and had little appeal if, after trying the papa porridge and finding it too hot, Goldilocks tried the mama porridge, found it too cold, but ate it anyway. Or if, after she lay down on the papa bed and finding it too hard, she tried the mama bed, found it too soft, but fell asleep anyway.

See what I mean about the just right? The antibiotic I’m now taking probably will work, but with the final third of the formula missing, I’ll never feel quite right about taking such a cheap medication. And that is exactly what many drug companies count on. A lot of them arbitrarily raise their prices so that they are between the highest and the lowest, knowing it will make us feel just right even if the stuff is no different than the cheaper version. And darn it! It works, even when we know better. Such is the power of three.

(I was checking my blog archive for when I’ve previously mentioned The Three Bears and the power of three, and I came across this remark I wrote in September, 2009: Someone asked me recently if I ever considered writing a novelization of my life, and I just laughed. There is no story in my life – nothing noteworthy ever happened to me, and I never did anything that millions of others didn’t also do. A bit ironic considering that in just a couple of weeks, a book about me and my grief journey will be published. Now that I think about it, I was right. I never did do anything that millions of others didn’t also do, but that’s the beauty of Grief: The Great Yearning. My journey is universal. And, unfortunately, it isn’t a novelization. It’s the truth.)

The Most Powerful Tool at a Writer’s Command

The most powerful tool at a writer’s command is not a computer or word processing program. It is not even a pen, though the pen is said to be mightier than the sword. (Frankly, though, I would prefer to go into a fight armed with a sword rather than a pen, but that could be a personal quirk.)

So what tool am I talking about? The power of three. Three is a mystical number that shows up repeatedly in mythology: three fates, three muses, three graces. Three is a prime component of fairy tales: three wishes, three little pigs, three bears. Three creates a series, a pattern of cause and effect. There are three stages of truth: first a concept is rejected, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as self-evident. Three is a basic structure of life: carbohydrates, protein, fat; electron, proton, neutron; past, present, future. And it is a basic structure of stories: beginning, middle, end.

The power of three is so pervasive that you can use it to plan a functional wardrobe. Before buying an article of clothing, think of three things to wear with it, three places to wear it, and three ways to accessorize it.

Three is a symmetrical number that satisfies something deep within our psyches, and if we use it in our writing, we can find a way into our reader’s minds, hearts, and souls.

To use the power of three in articles: Set up your premise, prove it, conclude it.

To use the power of three in a mystery: Give one clue to tantalize; two to suggest a direction of discovery; three to create a pattern.

To use the power of three in a story: Create tension, develop it, release it.

To use the power of three in description: Mention three attributes.

To use the power of three in devising a plot, following the storyline of The Three Bears. The first time Goldilocks tries to reach her goal, she fails but learns the risks. The second time she tries, she confirms that she’s doing things wrong, but she learns from her mistakes. The third time she tries, she gets it right.

To use the power of three in giving a speech: First, tell the audience what you’re going to tell them. Second, tell them. Third, tell them what you told them.

Because my work in progress has evolved into a story of a mythic journey, I have been paying particular attention to three. Instead of one mentor, my hero will have three, each of whom gives him a gift. He will meet three women; the third will be “the one.” He will have three chances to cross the threshold into a safe place. The story will be divided into three parts, like a play, and the hero will have three opportunities to accomplish a goal in each part.

Perhaps the power of three is formulaic, but life is a formula, and the power of three seems to work for it. So, when in doubt, I’ll think three.