You don’t need Schoolhouse Rock to know that 3 is a magic number.
It’s in our sciences with Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion and Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics. It’s in our religion (some of our religion) with the 3 Wise Men and the Holy Trinity. Three trimesters of pregnancy could yield triplets that all require first, middle, and last names on their road to birth, life, and death. The number 3 is everywhere. Most significantly, it’s in our pop culture.
It’s not just in it. It triple plays through it like a 3-pointer on a hat trick (huh?). Three Stooges, 3 Coins in a Fountain, 3 Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs, “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!! Beetlejuice!!!” Trilogies such as Indiana Jones (not a typo), Back to the Future, and The Hobbit. Star Wars will soon have a trilogy of trilogies. When else but in modern times can you watch the latest adaption of The 3 Musketeers in 3D while eating a 3 Musketeers candy bar?
The Superman saga is full of triplicates. Three identities — Kal-El, Clark Kent, Man of Steel — coincide with 3 worlds – Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis. When he battles a trio of Phantom Zone criminals, it’s for a tricolon like, “Truth, justice and the American way.”
Thanks to the zeitgeist, we’re all but conditioned to think that celebrities die in threes. Maybe we’re also conditioned to think that when something
doesn’t come in threes — when it’s in twos or fours — it doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t hit with the same impact. There’s a reason why the 3rd time is the charm. Isn’t there? Would the Robert Redford film, Three Days of the Condor, be as successful as it was if it kept its original title — Six Days of the Condor? (Seriously. That was the name of the book).
Take Superman again. In adapting his adventures to early radio, producers needed a way to make listeners believe a man can fly since no one could see him. Their solution — whenever Supes lifted off, he announced it with, “Up, up…” And that was it. It sounded like he was struggling to get off the ground. The phrase didn’t become famous until it was capped off with, “…and away.”
The power of 3 applies to the behind-the-scenes of pop culture as well. Photographers compose triptychs with the Rule of Thirds and Photoshoppers print them in RGB mode. Film and TV directors yell, “Lights, camera, action” before shooting in close-up, medium shot, or long shot.
In drama, the most common character dynamic by far is the triangle. Whether it’s love (Rick, Ilsa, Victor), friendship (Harry, Ron, Hermione), or rivalry (Roy, Robert, Richard), 3-sided configurations abound. Three-act structures are synonymous with the beginning, middle, and end necessary for every story. (Unless we’re talking about No Country For Old Men, which should be renamed No Country For Third Acts. But I digress.)
Threes can also be a road map to personal pop culture victory. Ken Kragen, successful business manager to back-in-the-day stars like Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, and Olivia Newton John — as well as the force behind “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America” — is a true believer in the Magic of Threes. For an in-depth explanation of Kragen’s theory, fast forward to minute 8 of this interview. Long story short, he states that:
“In today’s marketplace you can’t sell anything to anybody unless you get their attention. And to get their attention… They’ve got to see or hear or read 3 things in a very concentrated period of time before they even pay attention to whatever you’re trying to sell.”
Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? How could success, the first big break-through of success anyway, boil down to something as simple as a number? It’s possible, and a current example is Kevin Hart.
If you’d asked me 3 months ago who Kevin Hart was, I would’ve guessed Mary Hart’s little brother from another mother. Until last month when Grudge Match debuted with Stallone and DeNiro. Hart’s name was the only one in the ads that I didn’t recognize. “Who’s that guy?” I wondered. An hour later I had forgotten all about him. Until Ride Along hit theaters earlier this month. I recognized Ice Cube of course, and then I realized Cube’s co-star was the no-name guy from Grudge. “There’s that dude again,” I thought, but then I continued about my day. Now we’re seeing marketing for next month’s About Last Night, the all-black remake of the all-white 1986 film of the same name (minus the ellipsis). Front and center on the billboards — Kevin Hart!
“Who the hell is this guy?!” I yelled before looking him up online (I didn’t yell). Turns out he’s a Comic Triple-practicing comedian turned actor with an aggressive career plan. Who knew. Will I see any part of his triple-feature? Probably not. But the trifecta of their release dates in such a concentrated amount of time made me drop what I was doing and research him, which proves Kragen’s theory right.
Still doubtful? I was too. Until it happened to me.
I wrote a screenplay entitled Canary in a Coal Mine, which is not about The Police song or Tweety Bird, but was inspired by both. The script performed well in competition, becoming a Nicholl Fellowship Semi-Finalist (top 2% of 7,251 entries I emphasized to my wife’s parents in assurance that she’d married the right guy). That garnered industry requests to read the script. Me, myself, and I were thrilled.
A month later, Canary was chosen to appear on ScriptNotes, a podcast hosted by Tim Burton’s go-to writer, John August. I had submitted several times over several months to their 3-Page Challenge (that’s honestly what it‘s called), but didn’t get in until the script got noticed by Nicholl.
The following month it appeared on ScriptShadow, a screenwriting site where readers critique selected scripts. Canary got rave reviews/comments and is still in competition. Some reviewers remembered it from the ScriptNotes podcast and read it for the same reason that I researched Kevin Hart — recognition from being exposed to it 3 times in a short amount of time, just like the Magic of Threes implies.
So whether you’re 3 sheets to the wind after a threesome that was like a 3-ring circus, or you’re returning your 3-piece suit to 3 Day Suit Broker after spilling 3-bean salad on it, I want you to remember the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — 3 isn’t just a magic number. It’s the magic number.
COMING SOON: The Shared Universe Craze