Using Number Symbols in Writing

Originally this blog post published July 2016 on the Writers Ink Books website.  WIS reruns it because, after all, reruns are totally watchable.
For those looking for the Grammar Monster blog series, look for the chart link at the end of the blog.  In that chart you will find the important background lessons that students need before the Grammar Monster comes out of the cave.

You Can Do Magic:  Paint with Numbers

In the last blog, “Let’s Play” (in 2016, remember, on the WIB website, not this one), I mentioned that working in threes is the preferred number for repetition.  Three is that mysterious number in the realm of symbols, and it has great influence on the audience.

3’s are significant, whether spoken or written or visual.  Most will “hear” the first mention of an idea but think nothing of it.  A second mention sounds like coincidence.  The third mention is magic for the readers and audience.

A good comic will set up a joke with an unusual phrase, cycle back to that phrase in a later joke–just in passing, then hit that unusual phrase for the clincher of a closing joke.   Expectation has been created with the second mention and fulfilled with the third.  The humor then has a greater effect on the audience.

Ron White is the master of this extended use of threes. [Don’t click if you don’t like curse words. ;)] Listen for the third different use of “tater”.

So, that’s the effect of the 3 in repetition.  What about the other numbers?

Well, numbers are important in the world of literature (and religion, both so closely tied together in their origins that their devices [tropes] take on mythic gravitas.  Wow, that was a side excursion and a half).

The symbolic meaning of numbers (and colors–coming in the next blog) solidified in primitive cultures.  We can see the influence of the natural world and our own bodies in their development into virtually universal meanings.  Many numbers have both positive and negative connotations.

So, here are the meanings I have gleaned:

First Hand
  • 1 = the Self, of course.  Solitary / lonely  (positive / negative).  Independence, self-reliance.  Rank, descending or ascending (I’m number 1!  or the starting [lowest] point).

    the Three Norns by HLM: the Crone, the Matron, the Maiden or Past / Present / Future
  • 2 = companionship, love.  Deception > two-faced.
  • 3 = mystery > e.g., the Moirae, the three Fates of ancient Greece; the three Erinyes ( the Furies who are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone); the three Norns; the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; past / present / future;  Plato’s tripartite being: mind / body / soul.
  • 4 = the number representing Earth > e.g., north / south / east / west; the basic elements of earth / air / water / fire; and proteins / carbs / lipids / acids; the luck of a four-leaf clover; the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the four mathematical operations; the four Beatles.
  • 5 = 1/2 of 10 and thus halfway to completion; the limits of aspiration.  The musical staff is on five lines;  it takes both treble and bass staffs to create full harmony.  The five Sikh symbols.  The pentagram.
Second Hand
  • 6 = doubled mystery > secrecy, magic
  • 7 = perfection, absolute.
  • 8 = rebirth (one more than perfection > starting over), renewal OR as 8 is between 5 and 10, on the road to completion.
  • 9 = 3 + 3 + 3 = intensified mystery.
  • 10 = completion, fulfillment.
Three Extras
  • 11 = transition, thresholds, the liminal space. Over time, 11 became associated with death, which is the greatest of thresholds to cross.  BTW, literature pre-supposes that man has an existence after death, whatever form that existence might take; so it’s this existence, crossing the threshold, and the after-existence.  In literature, death is not a stoppage–unless it’s modern literature.  Oh, well.
  • 12 = man’s relationship to the Divine, in whatever form the Divine takes > 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Christ, 12 Signs of the Greek Zodiac, 12 cycles of the Chinese Years, 12 chief gods of Olympus, and more.
  • 13 = considered unlucky because man steps beyond his relationship with the Divine to pursue his own path, and challenging the gods [as Tantalus discovered] is never wise.  Gradually, it became associated with the occult.

How do you work with symbolic numbers in writing poetry and fiction and non-fiction?

Using symbols can add surprise and depth:

  • Instead of a Council of 5 have a Council of 4, representing the four pillars of earth.
  • Instead of four traps, have 6.
  • For a protagonist who never achieves his goal (how sad), have the number 5 constantly pop up:  a meeting at 5 o’clock, 5 friends who give him advice he never takes, the missed train on Platform 5, the fifth missed message from his boss, the 5th time he forgot his anniversary on May 5.
  • Repeat an image three times.  Repeat using synonyms or other variations of a concept six or nine or twelve times.
  • We all see lists of seven or ten.  Be different:  create lists of eight.
  • Categorize into four major areas, each with three subsets (a hidden seven).

When it’s time to flesh out the details of your outlined work, think through the numbers and see if they can magically assist you.

~~M A Lee

Click this link for the Grammar Monsters Opening Lessons Chart.