Three Is a Funny Number: A Tip for Writing Humor

Three is the number of completeness. In Christian theology, God is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In music, three notes--the root, third, and fifth--make up a complete chord, known as a triad. And in writing, groupings of three create a sense of wholeness. One sentence is a statement. Two sentences are an expansion. But three are a unity. In his book Writing Tools: Fifty Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark says, "In our language and culture, three provides a sense of the whole." He gives examples: Beginning, middle, and end. Moe, Larry, and Curly. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi. Executive, legislative, and judicial. Three just feels right. And triadic statements are a great device for writing humor. A friend of mine, Bob VanStee, recently posted an eloquent comment about lightning bugs on Facebook. It was a lovely bit of prose that captured the beauty of fireflies floating like tiny Japanese lanterns over the fields. He didn't put it that way, but what he wrote was every bit as rich in imagery: firefly fields ... sparkling like sequins on a lady's gown ... rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Very sweetly stated. Bob is clearly a romantic, and a number of people liked what he wrote. I was one of them, and I said so. Then, upon further reflection, I posted a second comment: "The female Photurus firefly will mimic the flash pattern of another species. Then when the male of that species arrives to mate, she eats him. I'm surprised that Dave Barry didn't have something to say about this in his Complete Guide to Guys." In the context of the overall thread, the jolting shift from sublimity to cannibalism works as humor. Well, it strikes me as funny, anyway. Instinctively, I used a triadic approach which consisted of the following:
  1. a factual opener,
  2. a shocking middle, and
  3. a wry editorial conclusion.
With variations, I think I use this formula often in writing humorous pieces. You might want to give it a try too.