Sunday, 13 March 2011

Groups of Three (and an Orange Tree)

I spent the week in Italy,
With scenery like this orange tree,
To stir some deep emotion in me.

It almost made up for the fact,
That my luggage had been left back,
On an Amsterdam airport baggge rack!

But then on the morn of my return,
My stomach began to squirm and churn,
Leaving me clinging to the cistern. 

Okay, so maybe not the greatest poem ever penned - loosely based on the terza rima* format, though really each line should have 10 or 11 syllables - but i didn't want to spend three heavy paragraphs explaining the details of my trip last week.  It boiled down to three key elements; my lugggage arrived a day later than i did, Italy was beautiful, and on the morning i flew home i was struck down with a stomach bug.

The power of three!  Three is a magic number!  Bad luck comes in threes!  Groups of three are seen a lot in writing; the three act play, for example.  For the poem above i had three main points to make, hence three tercets; a beginning, middle and end.

Groups of three are a really useful tool for the writer.  They are a fast and punchy way of describing a character or location...

 She was pale-skinned, plump and ever so timid.

His bedroom was typical of any teenage boy; clothes strewn about the floor, air thick with the smell of bad feet, and a half eaten sandwich peeking out from under the bed.

Groups of three allow the reader to build a quick picture of what is being described.  Any less than three and the picture may be incomplete; any more and it could become cluttered and confused.  Groups of three come in really handy when editing your work.  You can use the principle to de-clutter your manuscript, or to beef up any limp descriptions.

Remember though that this is not a hard and fast rule.  There will be times when a group of three simply won't fit.  The best way to tell is to read your work out loud and listen to the rhythm.  If it feels clunky then change it. 

*To put some sense to the seemingly random threads of a trip to Italy and groups of three, it is the Italian poet Dante who is credited with inventing terza rima, though it has also been used by English poets including Chaucer, Milton, Shelley and Auden.


  1. Sorry about the bug Einar but the groups of three posting is really interesting. I am currently bogged down with re-reading section 1 of my first novel. I know I should be just writing and writing but I need to feel happy before I move on. I always read out loud which I find a great help but will use groups of three now as well!
    My blog is I would really appreciate it if you had a look.

  2. I actually like it - I am not the greatest poet myself... in fact im not one at all, but I know what I like!

  3. The rule of threes works in photography too!