by Jim Foreman
THE MAGIC OF THREE
One of the first things which every engineering student learns is that a triangle is the strongest framework known and that just about every weight supporting structure in the world is comprised of three joined units. A table with three legs will always be stable, no matter how uneven the support surface might be and who ever heard of a camera being mounted atop anything except a tripod.
With this proof of the basic stability of things with three legs, then how come that through the process of natural selection, spiders have eight legs, flies have six, and all animals except for humans, primates and birds have four? There is nothing in the natural world with three legs with the exception of our old cat named Herman; however, he wasn't born that way. Herman wound up with only three legs after climbing under the hood of the neighbor's Buick and tangling with the fan when they cranked the motor. The fact that Herman had two legs in front and only one behind didn't seem to be any sort of a handicap to him as he could whip any three cats or two dogs in the neighborhood, and during his nineteen year lifespan, he must have sired at least 90% of all the kittens born in the town where we lived.
Throughout the ages, just about every historical event of any importance involved groups of three. There were three wise men who went to see Jesus when he was born, Columbus used three ships when he discovered America and it would be unthinkable to have either two or four stooges. Actually, there were four of the Howard boys but Schemp didn't became one of the trio until after another brother dropped out.
Had only two of the stooges tried to work as a team, Moe wouldn't have had two heads to bonk together and had there been four of them, the other three would certainly have ganged up and beat the tar out of him. For those of you who are old enough to remember that there were originally four Marx brothers, you are probably more concerned with prostate problems than being drafted for the army. Anyway, way back in the beginning when the Marx brothers were trying to break into comedy, they found that any three of them could work together very well but when the fourth was tossed into the fray, it became nothing more than confusion. The one with the business head left the stage to manage the other three. Perhaps it is true what my dad used to say about boys, "One will work, two will play, three fight and four scatter."
Just as the magic number of three is what holds all of these conditions together and gives them strength, it will also provide the necessary foundation for the humor writer. Not only does it give a firm basis to play the punchline against, but it also provides a certain cadence needed to make humor work.
When you set our to write something funny, you need to go at it in the same manner as a Sergeant in charge of a firing squad. He doesn't simply light a cigarette for the condemned man, step back and order his men to, "Shoot that sucker!" He gives the prisoner a chance to anticipate what is coming by commanding, "Ready...., Aim...., Fire!"
Your first task in writing is to get the reader's attention. This is usually done with what in writing is called a "Grabber Line". This is that first and most critical line which you write as it has to literally grab the attention of the reader and make him want to read more. It is like that hackneyed old line, "It was a dark and stormy night." Here are the first lines from the two previous stories which I have used as illustrations. The first is from "The Ugly Green Carpet."
"'That ugly green carpet has to go,' I said emphatically to my husband the moment we stepped through the door."
The other first line was taken from "Going Tubeless."
"I'm not sure when the Baja bug chomped down on me, but I suspect that it happened during a commercial in which a pickup truck was leaping from one sand mogul to the next across the Vizcaino Desert while an off-camera announcer raved on about how this rice-rocket had tamed Baja."
I liked the first of the two much better because it is short, sweet and right to the point. The second one had to be somewhat longer in order to establish the proper perspective on the subject. The rule of three doesn't necessarily have to apply to the grabber line if it is strong enough.
If what you are writing is rather lengthy, such as a book, then it is possible to use up to a full paragraph for this purpose, but it is still best if you stick to that first sentence. To illustrate just how important that first line is to the reader; did you ever watch people when they pick up a book for the first time. They will begin reading the first page and will know within seconds whether they want to buy it or not.
Once that you have the reader firmly hooked, you can play against the grabber line to introduce the person or establish the situation on which you plan to hang your humor. Depending on the complexity of the situation and length of the whole piece that you are writing, you can use a whole chapter, a paragraph or simply a line or two to accomplish this purpose.
Once that you have the situation established, then it is time to move to the second part of the triad or troika, giving the reader a reason to anticipate what is going to happen. You want to avoid giving away too much information at this point or else they will get way ahead of you and know what the punchline is going to be. This is known as telegraphing the joke. By the same token, you have to let them in on just a little of the secret to keep the story rolling. As a rule of thumb, this part of the story should be about half the length of the introduction part.
The final part and what we have been working up to all this time is the punchline with the operative word being "line." This is no place for flowers and lace. This is where we yell, "FIRE!" the guns go off and the reader rolls on the floor. The shorter that you can keep the punchline, the better. Trim it down to one word if possible.
Now we come to the second reason for grouping things together in bunches of three. For some reason, having a string of words separated by a comma and a conjunction makes the sentences flow much better and seems to carry the reader on toward the conclusion. In writing humor, not only does it work much better to use groups of three in sentences, but jokes work better when joined in strings of three. Read that last sentence again because it is a perfect illustration how a string of three carries the reader along.
Here are some more excerpts from "Going Tubeless" and "The Ugly Green Carpet" in which you will be able to see how the magic of three was used to carry the thought toward the end. The first is from "Going Tubeless".
"During the next six minutes, while good old JR Ewing swindled a dozen of his best friends, went to bed with five different women and had Sue Ellen committed to the Betty Ford Center, I plotted how to break the news to the little woman who had promised to love, honor and adjust my vertical hold that I also wanted to tame Baja."
You will notice that I used two strings of three in this one paragraph. Read the paragraph, leaving out just one of the words in each group and see how stilted and awkward it sounds.
In this next illustration, instead of a string of three words which would not have been able to carry the thought properly, I used a string of three sentences. In order to keep the cadence going through the three sentences, I added alliteration in the first sentence to punch up the flow. Alliteration in a group of three words is another bit of magic which makes humor work better. If you can find a place where it works naturally, then use it.
"Not only did the carpet refuse to show even the slightest signs of wear, but it had the uncanny ability to assimilate and digest anything and everything which was dripped, dropped or dumped onto it. Over the next several years it absorbed the contents of leaky diapers without showing the slightest stain. It soaked up dozens of bottles of that sticky purple syrup which doctors prescribe for children but which they spit out when you tried to force it down them. There is no way of estimating how many bottles of milk leaked out and were slurped up by that carpet."
In this final illustration, I not only used strings of three words and sentences, but joined together a series of three paragraphs to carry the idea along.
"The lifestyle and eating habits of the carpet changed to accommodate our growing children. It withstood the onslaught of slumber parties where it digested seventeen different brands of soda and dozens of half eaten slices of pizza. The tag-team efforts of a pair of girls with their lipstick, fingernail polish and herbal shampoo couldn't faze it.
It proved not only to be girl-proof but just as easily took on the best efforts of our son who became world-renown for accidentally kicking things over onto the carpet. It lapped up his science project of a gallon of tadpole eggs as well as the entire contents of a Young Edison chemistry set, which was only one element short of everything needed to produce nerve gas or atomic fusion. Model airplane glue and tiny chips of balsa wood proved to be no more of a challenge to the carpet than did an entire can of 3 in 1 oil the time that he brought his bicycle into the living room to oil the chain.
The only instance when we really felt that we had finally killed the carpet was the time that the neighbor was drying moose jerky on a rack in his back yard and our dog, Lucky, crawled under the fence and ate ten pounds of it. It made him so ill that he came into the house and threw it up in a corner behind a chair. This happened on the morning when we were leaving on vacation. We were so sure that there would be no way that the carpet would survive something like that, so we just left it. When we returned two weeks later, there wasn't the slightest indication that anything had ever happened in that corner."
The other story which I'd like to use illustrates the magic of the number three and the power of a short punchline. Notice how everything that he says is a string of three.
This is a story about the Texan who decided that after forty-five years, he would return to England to visit where he was stationed during World War Two. He was dressed in his biggest hat, fanciest cowboy boots and most elaborate western shirt as he rode the train from London. He was seated directly across from two English gentlemen, one of whom was rather elderly and hard of hearing while the other was around middle age. The Texan was talking to them.
"Yeah, I was over here durin' the big war. Flew B-24s out of Dunstable; bombed hell out of them Krauts."
"What'd 'E say?" asked the hard of hearing gentleman, cupping his hand behind his ear.
"'E knows Dunstable," answered the younger man.
"Yeah, I really know Dunstable. There was a pub there, called The Duck and The Crow. We'd all go there after every mission and get knee-walkin', toilet huggin' drunk."
"What'd 'E say?" asked the elder gentleman.
"'E knows The Duck and The Crow."
"Boy, do I ever remember The Duck and The Crow," continued the Texan. "There was this barmaid there; we called her Willing Wanda. She'd drop her knickers for any guy with a pair of wings on his chest."
"What'd 'E Say?" asked the man.
"'E knows mother."