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.
The boy was dumb.
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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