Modern society runs on numbers and it’s essential for all of us to understand their significance. We have stock markets, accountants, statisticians, mathematicians and computers which are all dedicated to numbers. Together, they produce petabytes of data every day that fill every corner of our lives. Today, I weighed 120.2 pounds. Yay! How about 220.2 pounds? Is that too much? My weight is only a number and yet, I am aware that it is a measure of my health and how others perceive me.
Numbers quantify and distinguish with infinite precision. “Bob tried to start the car three times.” Why not four or two? The number three precisely describes Bob’s tenacity and the car’s status. Yet, only readers who use cars are able to appreciate this number. “Karen needed $120 to pay for the ticket.” This number directly relates to Karen’s finances. For a wealthy person, this sum would be insignificant while it would exceed the life’s savings of a poor person.
We are only able to quantify time with a number. “Fred used 15 minutes to complete his task.” The reader can now precisely comprehend Fred’s level of frustration, time management, and time investment. Readers appreciate his sacrifice as they have worked on tasks requiring 15 minutes.
Humans love to round numbers. “How many nails do you have? About a hundred.” Why not, “Exactly 98.” Or, “About 110.” Sometimes we round to even, tens or five’s. “That took over 20 minutes.” “The speed is 55 miles per hour.” “It’s 50 kilometers to Chicago.” “We need 12 eggs.” Has anybody ever needed 11 or 13 eggs?
We also need to correlate our numbers to something intangible. I suspect we have a primal instinct to depend on known values that provide our lives with references. 220 pounds is a good weight. 15 minutes is not enough time to walk to school. $100 dollars is too much.
Numbers allow us to have descriptions containing great precision. Bob cannot start the car 3.5 times. He either turns the key or not. Yet, I can define my weight with near-infinite precision, 99.12345678 pounds. Yes, I did make that number up. It’s obvious because the fractional part of the number is in numerical order. Plus, readers know that bathroom weights work in increments of 0.1 pounds.
Humans cling to strange numerical beliefs. Seven is a lucky number. Thirteen is unlucky. Cats have nine lives. We even have a numerical religion/belief called Numerology. For some people, their weddings must occur on a certain day. Houses may not be purchased with a street number containing a 9. Being born on the first day of a month is a bad sign.
As a writer, I think a lot about numbers. What is a good number of attempts for Bob to start his car? How would my character react to spending $120? How long does a task take to complete? It’s important for characters to properly interact with realistic numbers. Sally finished her minimum wage job and spent $500 on a burger. A perfectly valid sentence, yet readers easily spot the error.
In a good story, the proper use of numbers is essential. Errors are easy identified and a less than perfect number will leave readers annoyed. Yet, numbers represent power. A writer may define characters with extreme precision. Bob tried to start the car over 100 times. What a fighter! The ending of this blog took only one sentence.
You’re the best -Bill
November 06 2019
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