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Variations on this trope include uses of 5, 7, 12, and convenient multiples of 5 afterwards (i.e., 25 or 50, but not 35 or 70).
Sub Tropes include Three Wishes, These Questions Three, Third Time's the Charm, Trilogy Creep, On Three, Counting to Three, The Three Certainties in Life, Two out of Three Ain't Bad, and Three-Stat System.
The trope is also incredibly common in fairytales and ghost stories that are part of oral tradition.
The reason above is important, as audiences don't have a good idea of how this ghost/gnome/witch would typically behave, and it works well for building tension too. You get three times the story padding for only having to remember one short story and some minor variations.
The second time they see it, it is the same as the first.
Many popular jokes are based on three Stock Characters (e.g. The first two react normally, the third does something ridiculous (but stereotypically in character).
Counts of three elements are used widely in rhetoric, writing and myth: "Ready, aim, fire", "Veni, Vidi, Vici", "Lights, camera, action", "Reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic," "rhetoric, writing and myth".
Just try and think about how many times you've heard the phrase "On the count of three..." A constructed phrase such as "Veni, Vidi, Vici." that has three grammatically and logically connected elements is known as a Tricolon.
The third time they see the event in question, it is different, so the audience knows that this is a deviation from the norm.
For example, in , we see Red appear before the parole board three times.