The Magic of Numbers – How Novelists and Writers Can Use Them For Impact

I know! I know! We’re writers not accountants or mathematicians, but there is a great lovely magic to using numbers in our sentences and paragraphs.

What a lot of people don’t know about my writing life is that I started out intensely focused on newspaper stories and poetry.

What the what?

Yep. It’s true. I was actually a sports reporter and a poet for awhile. And it’s weird, but also lucky, because it allowed me to get some training that not all novelists get. And this post calls back to that training.

Here’s the thing: Numbers, repetition, lack of repetition? They all have their place in our writing arsenal. We can use them to make impact.

Poets repeat elements purposefully and us writers can use that tool in our own writing, too.

What exactly am I talking about?

I’m talking about the elements of a sentence and how we can vary them or not to stress things or to make them lyrical.

A lot of us writers have favorite kinds of sentences. We might be fans of simplicity or of multiple clauses. We might be all about starting every sentence with “he” or be addicted to beginning with a subordinate clause. You’ll write a paragraph like this:

He walked outside. He went up to a tree. He hugged the tree. The tree didn’t hug him back.

Or . . .

As he walked outside, he went up to a tree and hugged it. While he hugged the tree, a bird fluttered by and chirruped.

We get in these ruts of style and structure and we are lulling the reader a bit, right? It gets boring.

No writer wants to be boring!

Now, I want you to imagine that you are a writer supervillain and your job is to manipulate your reader into feeling what you want them to feel. You’ve taken away their agency and through the sheer power of your storytelling tool box, you are making them cry and worry and imagine and feel.

But to manipulate our sweet readers to the best of our abilities, we have to be able to access all our tools and this is one of them.

One – The Simple Sentence.

This is the kind of sentence that tells us one thing. It’s probably an important thing.

Jesus wept.

Hug me.

The boy was dumb.

Trust them.

These are the sentences where we don’t give the reader any room to doubt. They are simple. They are declarations. There is nothing fancy going on.

Two – Things Get Deeper

When we add another element, the reader suddenly has a slightly different feeling about the sentence and the character. Traits are thrown out there. Do those traits make sense together? Are they odd together? There is power in both of those decisions.

Jesus wept and snored.

Hug me and the manatee

The boy was dumb and enthusiastic.

Trust them and the dogs.

Things are different now, aren’t they?

Here’s a great example.

“The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.” – Claudia Rankine, Citizen

When we put two things together, life and story aren’t quite so simple anymore. We’re making the reader think.

Three – Making Magic

In the Western writing world, the power of three is a thing in both narrative structure and paragraph/sentence structure. Editors look for it in picture books where the main character has to try three times before succeeding in their goals.

The most common type of book structure thanks to Aristotle? Beginning. Middle. End. Three acts.

Even Christianity gets in on it with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—the holy trinity, right?

Jesus wept and snored and wept.

Jesus wept and snored and washed his feet.

Hug me and the manatees and rejoice.

The boy was dumb and enthusiastic and dead.

Trust them and the dogs and maybe not the gerbils.

With three we have that resonating power, but we also have the chance for humor and a twist. Things aren’t so simple any more, not so declarative. But they feel done—complete—resonating.

It’s also kind of fun to look at it without the AND in there connecting things.

Jesus wept, snored, and wept.

Jesus wept, snored, and washed his feet.

Hug me, the manatees,  rejoice.

The boy was dumb, enthusiastic, and dead.

Trust them, the dogs, and maybe not the gerbils.

It’s interesting how much difference a tiny AND can make, isn’t it?

Here’s an excerpt that shows the power of three followed by the power of two.

“I wonder if I would tell him what I became, what I made of myself, what I made of myself despite him. I wonder if he would care, if it would matter.” – Roxane Gay, Hunger

So good, right?

Four And Up

The simplicity of one? Gone.

The duality and occasional divisiveness of two? Gone.

The magical completeness of three? Gone.

We are into the land of over four. And four and more? That’s a lyrical place.

Jesus wept, snored, and wept, smiling.

Jesus wept, snored, and washed his feet without water.

Hug me, the manatees, and rejoice and sigh.

The boy was dumb, enthusiastic, dead, and full of yearnings. 

Trust them, the dogs, and maybe not the gerbils and maybe not the crickets either since they never stopped running in circles (gerbils) and running their mouths (crickets).

Okay, maybe my super villain writing examples weren’t so lyrical, but here are some better examples. Look at what Jacqueline Woodson does here:

“Our words had become a song we seemed to sing over and over again. When I grow up. When we go home. When we go outside. When we. When we. When we.” – Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn

One of the most famous practitioners of this is Tim O’Brien.

They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Roy Peter Clark talks about this concept a lot, but he also makes a lovely primer that really shows what each element can do.

“Use one for power.

Use two for comparison, contrast.

Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.

Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, expand.”

Yes, Carrie, that’s all well and good, you’re probably thinking, but how do I apply this to MY story.

Well, you can apply it to make special moments snazzier or more powerful.

When you go over a scene, look for places where you want to be powerful. Use the one. Look for places where you want a litany, create that O’Brien list. Think about how your dastardly writer supervillain self wants to make the reader feel. Where would it help the reader to add on things/images/examples? Where would it help the reader to subtract those same things?

It really is a skill that I’m positive you can do and use to make your writing even more brilliant than it already is.

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Hey! We’re all about inspiring each other to be weird, to be ourselves and to be brave and we’re starting to collect stories about each other’s bravery. Those brave moments can be HUGE or small, but we want you to share them with us so we can share them with the world. You can be anonymous if you aren’t brave enough to use your name. It’s totally chill.

Want to be part of the team? Send us a quick (or long) email and we’ll read it here and on our YouTube channel.

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HELP US AND DO AN AWESOME GOOD DEED

Thanks to all of you who keep listening to our weirdness on the DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE podcast and our new LOVING THE STRANGE podcast.

We’re sorry we laugh so much… sort of. 


Please share it and subscribe if you can. Please rate and like us if you are feeling kind, because it matters somehow. There’s a new episode every Tuesday!

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One of our newest LOVING THE STRANGE podcasts is about the strange and adorably weird things people say?

And one of our newest DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE episode is about fear setting and how being swallowed by a whale is bad ass.


And Carrie has new books out! Yay!

You can order now! It’s an adult mystery/thriller that takes place in Bar Harbor, Maine. Read an excerpt here!

best thrillers The People Who Kill
The people who kill

It’s my book! It came out June 1! Boo-yah! Another one comes out July 1.

And that one is called  THOSE WHO SURVIVED, which is the first book in the the DUDE GOODFEATHER series.  I hope you’ll read it, like it, and buy it!

The Dude Goodfeather Series - YA mystery by NYT bestseller Carrie Jones
The Dude Goodfeather Series – YA mystery by NYT bestseller Carrie Jones

TO TELL US YOUR BRAVE STORY JUST EMAIL BELOW.

How Not to Write Your Novel

Dogs Are Smarter Than People: Writing Life, Marriage and Motivation
Dogs Are Smarter Than People: Writing Life, Marriage and Motivation
How Not to Write Your Novel
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It’s a lot like life honestly.

Here’s the number one hint.

Wait forever to start writing.

Don’t wait to start. Don’t expect lightening to strike or a muse to come down from the heavens.

Just write. Call it practice if ‘writing a novel’ seems too big a task. Trick your mind into being chill about it. If you want to do something, you have to do it. Don’t wait for permission. Just do it.

As long as it’s legal and doesn’t hurt other people. Obviously that sentence up there about not waiting for permission doesn’t apply to all things.

But it does freaking apply to art and writing and joy and fun.

Again, as long as your fun doesn’t hurt other creatures.

Back to the point. We wait all our lives for inspiration, for a prince or warrior-queen to come sweep us off our feet, for the muse to bless us with the perfect novel or poem or family or painting or child. But we have to put in the work. We have to be brave and actively go after what it is we want.

We might write a ton of sucky sentences. We might forget how to use a comma. We might fail and get rejected a million times.

That’s what makes the quest good though. That’s what makes the goal worth it.

So if you want to write a novel? Write it. Just get started.

If you don’t want to write a novel? Don’t.

Study craft. Push yourself. Think about who your story is about and how they relate to the world. Just write down the words you hear in your brain, the visions you see. Start it.

You’ve got this.

Writing Tip of the Pod:

Everything up there, man.

Dog Tip for Life

Dude. Hang out in the truck.


SHOUT OUT

The music we’ve clipped and shortened in this podcast is awesome and is made available through the Creative Commons License. Here’s a link to that and the artist’s website. Who is this artist and what is this song?  It’s “Night Owl” by Broke For Free.

WRITING NEWS

IN THE WOODS – READ AN EXCERPT, ORDER NOW!

My new book, IN THE WOODS, is out!

Gasp! 

It’s with Steve Wedel. It’s scary and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Buzz Books for Summer 2019. There’s an excerpt of it there and everything! But even cooler (for me) they’ve deemed it buzz worthy! Buzz worthy seems like an awesome thing to be deemed! 

You can order this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?

In the Woods
In the Woods


ART NEWS

You can buy limited-edition prints and learn more about my art here on my site. 

Carrie Jones Art for Sale

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Check it out here. 

WHAT IS PATREON? 

A lot of you might be new to Patreon and not get how it works. That’s totally cool. New things can be scary, but there’s a cool primer HERE that explains how it works. The short of it is this: You give Patreon your paypal or credit card # and they charge you whatever you level you choose at the end of each month. That money supports me sharing my writing and art and podcasts and weirdness with you.