What’s Your Number?

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike say a brain surgeon.” – Robert Cormier

Grab your thesaurus! You need a stronger word to convey the anger your protagonist feels.

When reading your completed manuscript, look for apathetic words that don’t show the desire, despair, curiosity, danger, happiness, terror, or excitement you want the reader to feel. You may change a chosen word or phrase after reading aloud what you’ve written because the word just doesn’t fit. Perusing a dictionary or thesaurus helps in finding alternative expressions that work better.

But what about the numbers a writer selects in the titles of his stories. A particular number could hold some connection to the plot or sound better when read aloud. A writer may pick a different number even if it means adding or omitting characters or restructuring the story to fit.

Often a significant number conveys the meaning of a story much better than just words. Ray Bradbury wrote a short, futuristic story titled, The Fireman, where books are burned and reading is prohibited. There’s no spark to that title. However, a longer version published in 1951 with a more provocative title, Fahrenheit 451, worked better. Fahrenheit 451, the temperature of the combustion of paper, sparks more interest in the storyline.

Sometimes a number in an alliteration works. For example, 77 Sunset Strip, was the name of a popular television series from 1958 – 1964. The detectives could have lived anywhere on the Strip, but the address 77, worked better especially in their theme song.

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, (an alliterative title) depicts the request from villagers asking for protection from bandits and the response of the seven men. The verbalization of that two-syllable number, seven, sounds much better than any other reasonably small number. Eleven might have been a decent alternate number choice, however, that would make for a more involved storyline. Too many characters get in the way of a good, tight story. The movie was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and The Magnificent Seven (2016).

The comedy, 9 to 5, tells the story of three women who, tired of their boss’s bigoted condescending attitude, take revenge on him. Dolly Parton’s song, “Working 9 to 5,” from the movie was a catchy tune. The title could have been “8 to 4” but that doesn’t sound as impactful. I had a job where I worked from 8:30 to 4:30. Try putting that time frame into a cute song.

I saw the 1985 French comedic movie, Trois hommes et un couffin (translation: Three Men and a Cradle) which needed no translation. The 1987 Hollywood remake, Three Men and a Baby, told a similar story. Having two inept men take care of a baby wouldn’t provide enough comedic material. Four bumbling men would be too much. Three worked best.

In Les Trois Mousquetaires (translation: The Three Musketeers), Alexandre Dumas’s historical novel, there were four musketeers after D’Artagnan joined the powerful Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. Any remakes never altered the number of the original. Again, the number three worked best for this story.

Which movies and books can you recall that have a number in the title? What is the significance of that number?





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    • Karen Kittrell on May 8, 2017 at 7:16 am
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    You covered many uses of numbers including the number of people, time, addresses and even the temperature of fire. How about age – Sixteen Candles? Great post – enjoyed it.

      • Barbara on June 26, 2017 at 6:01 pm
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      Thanks, Karen. I’m glad you enjoyed my blog. Sixteen Candles was an excellent title. I wonder if there are other titles that refer to a person’s age.

    • Barbara Pattee on May 6, 2017 at 5:25 pm
    • Reply

    You’re welcome, Phil. I had fun doing the research on these stories as well as many others. As a former math teacher, I’m fascinated by numbers.

  1. Thanks for sharing, Barb… you got me thinking!

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