Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 8, 2013


 edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call is a treasure trove for writers with any interest in narrative. The opening piece by Jacqui Banasynski brought tears as she shifted from describing effects of famine in Ethiopia, including digging shallow graves, for not much dirt was needed to cover thin babies, to an account of the starving people singing stories every night, through the coughing and keening. I loved Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s remarks about how her career developed in part from having never learned to drive, so she took the bus, looked out the windows, and made unexpected stops. She mentioned that while it’s painful to omit stories that took hard work to find, she’s learned that “three well-articulated, nuanced examples – backed by sharply documented evidence of a broader problem – are far better than twenty examples that raise more questions than they answer.”


I learned something from almost every writer in this collection, but what struck me was that while none mentioned fairy tales with three bears, three beans, three spins around, or three wishes, several alluded to the power of that number. In “What Narrative Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters,” Nora Ephron tells us that Martin Scorsese says that the dream movie scene is three people in a room, and how she used this writing the film Silkwood, focusing on the whistle-blower Karen, her roommate, and her boyfriend, while piecing together where to begin and end and ways to keep up tension through the middle.

Jon Franklin writes about the three layers of stories: the events, ways the characters react to what happens, and a rhythm that evokes the story’s universal theme. He writes of how this seems backed by the work of neuroanatomist Paul MacLean with what he called triume brain, finding that we all have a brain that is cognitive, another that registers emotion, and another rhythm. Other writers here also mention layers of what happens and an emotional response, but instead of something musical they cite a hope to evoke why the story matters, what it all means, perhaps how the particular tale connects to the greater world.

Three objects on a page can give us the satisfaction of symmetry, but is also dynamic, whereas two by two, side by side, can leave us unmoved. Three is a good number to remember and isn’t just for those who like magic, trilogies, the trinity, tercets, sky-land-and-sea, or the Fates. I’ll be thinking of ways layers can unfold as I look ways for concrete and abstract to meet, while getting back to my own untrue story. It strikes me that triangles can have the enduring nature of circles, while being less cozy. Have you encountered the tug of three in an unexpected place?



  1. Oh, this sounds like a gem. Thank you for sharing it, Jeannine. As for ‘the tug of three’, we have three children, and it is magical! 😉

    • This book is so rich, Amy! And yay for three magical children!

  2. Now you’re making me think, Jeannine, and it’s almost 5 pm. Ditto to Amy with the thanks. And the children.

    • There are those gangs of four in Little Women, and Dorothy and her Oz friends, the Narnia family, and superhero clusters, but there is something to be said for those clusters of three, too.

      It’s getting on the late side for thinking here, too.

  3. As the good folks at Schoolhouse Rock sing, “three is a magic number”. I will have to look for this book. And recommend it to a good friend who is always looking at and thinking about her craft.

    • I had this on my shelf for a while having been attracted to the authors, but thinking the “nonfiction” wouldn’t speak so loudly or singingly to me. Then I plowed right through it, and turned around for more.

  4. I’m really intrigued by this concept of threes. Subtle, so I’m especially glad that it hummed loudly enough for you to hear it. .

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
    Three Wise Men
    The cock crowing three times
    Nativity, crucifixion and resurrection
    Peter, James and John in the fishing boat,. witness to Jesus’ walking on the water.

    These Biblical trios came to mind, almost instantly. I’m sure I could think of lots more (maybe better) examples, given more time for reflection.

    (Another book I’ll want to read–thanks for cracking open the binding for us.)

    • Thanks for the examples, which I think show how ancient and powerful this number can be. It’s something to keep tucked at the back of your mind when making decisions about examples or how many objects to set on a paper table, for instance.

      And I do think you will love this book — sorry to add to your pile! That first essay will break your heart and open it, too. And while you’re on a different sort of quest than most of these writers, many sure your love of truth and offer fascinating thoughts on developing a sense of character when working with real subjects, setting scenes, ethics and techniques of interviewing, etc — Louise Kiernan writes a moving three paragraph piece about backing off.

  5. Sounds like a treasure, Jeannine. I’ve been to the Neiman Conference in Boston and learned so much there, and in my own writing I find myself drawing on threes a lot (3-act structure, 3 characters in a room, other triangles of various sorts…). I’m really looking forward to this book.

    • From the website, it looks like those conferences are wonderful, and there’s certainly so much energy that emanates from this book it’s easy to envision. And of course you have a beautiful family of three.

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