Mathematical Mistakes in Writing: Why All Significant Numbers should be in the Single Digits - Travis Senzaki

Mathematical Mistakes in Writing: Why All Significant Numbers should be in the Single Digits

Here’s how I imagine things went down. Tolkein came up with the idea of focusing magic power in his world around magic rings and started divvying them up among his races. Three for the elves, because everything else with the Elves was three. Seven for the dwarves, nine for the men, none for the hobbits (but it’s ok, they get pipe weed). Then he sat back and looked down at his notes with horror: 19 rings. That’s nineteen lineages and cultures he has to build up to support those. 19 different threads to weave into his story. Screw that. He had a better idea. He began writing:

“One ring to rule them all…”
Because let’s face it, 19 is way too many. There’s a good reason that mystical numbers are almost always in the single digits.

What I’ve Been Up To

Since I finished the first draft of my novel, nearly a month ago, I’ve been polishing my world, characters, and scenes. When I’m working on world-building, I find that I’m less motivated to blog. World-building doesn’t feel like proper writing, as necessary as it is, so I don’t feel accomplished enough to “take a break” by blogging. It’s also not nearly as mentally taxing, so I don’t need that break. But aside from an off-topic blog about Gion Matsuri, I’ve been relatively quiet here. Since the purpose of this blog is to document my writing process, that sort of silence, especially while I’m dealing with the nuts and bolts stuff, is not a good thing. So, as much as I’m driving toward getting the rewrite started on time on July 29 (I created a block for it on the Writing Progress Tracker

A Number Problem

Ever notice how the significant numbers in most fantasies are single digits? Three is the obvious one. An ambitious write might go for seven. Tolkein was insane, he went for nine. Nine members of the Fellowship that each needed a culture, a background, a reason for being there. And nine opposing Ringwraiths, although they got next to no treatment, whatsoever. In fact, if you think about it, he narrowed down the background planning significantly by filling nearly half the slots with hobbits and another with a “mysterious wizard” whose background is never clearly explained, except in the Silmarillion. (Which isn’t to say that Tolkein didn’t need to know it.) So, we’re really looking at 4.5 (the .5 is for Aragorn) cultures and kingdoms that he had to create, for the Fellowship, plus Elrond’s high elves, Moria, Lorien, Rohan… and we’re back up to 9ish. But again, this is the grandfather of world-building. This is not something I need to strive for on my first attempt, right? So what number did I choose?

I chose 23.

I had a really good reason for it, that I don’t necessarily want to spoil here, since most of my characters don’t know it themselves at the beginning. The reasons have been lost to history, to everyone’s peril. Hah! Tease! But seriously, I chose 23. Which means that the King needs 23 bodyguards, none of whom can be from that kingdom/ culture. The kingdom itself is divided into 6 Earldoms/Margravates with 23 counties. (Six is another significant number). Each county needs a ruler, a founder of the line, a castle, a name for each of the above, and its unique story and economic specialization. Even in outline form, with bullet sentences, that was over 8000 words.

Down the Rabbit Hole

There’s another problem beyond the sheer weight of numbers, and that is that I enjoyed all of that. I loved the Silmarillion, and part of the reason I chose to write in epic fantasy was to try to create a world that my readers could dive into with the same awe and joy as I experienced when I read Tolkein. So, the danger here is that I keep writing and writing about these other territories that my characters do not visit in the first novel, or about bodyguards from interesting foreign kingdoms who ultimately serve the role of cannon fodder. No, I don’t have cannons, but that reminds me, I need to write a short essay on the weaponry and fighting styles relevant to the book.

Conquering Math and Personality

It took me about two weeks to recognize the problem I was facing, and about half an hour to solve it. First, I set myself a deadline: I would start writing the text of the rewrite exactly one month after finishing the first draft. That forced me to concentrate on my most important task: transforming my outline from chapters to scenes and making each of those scenes significant. I reset my priorities:

  1. Complete character sketches, including internal and external conflicts
  2. Plot distances and travel times between important locations and create a plot timeline
  3. Build scene indexes for each of the five POV characters then fit their scenes into the timeline
  4. Unify the scene indexes
  5. Expand unified scene index into outline
  6. Add in scenes for minor characters as necessary
  7. Write
  8. Organize into Chapters

I’m working on 5 now, but I don’t plan to finish the outline before beginning writing. As long as I stay a few scenes ahead, I should be good. Switching between writing scenes and the outline helps motivate me, kind of like switching to this blog and back.

So far, things are falling in to place. I’m on schedule to begin the rewrite on July 29th, and excited to get back into it. I have a much better feel for my characters now, including the ones that changed sex after the first draft, and I think I’m more prepared to tackle the story in scenes, rather than chapters. And, of course, I’m really excited to put Scrivener into service!

Fire up the coffee machine, because here I go!

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