Thursday, June 21, 2012

By The Numbers

            What the heck?  How’d it get to be Thursday already...?
            Okay, a quick tip for you about numbers, because I’ve had a few folks ask me about this in the past few months.
            Some people get confused about numbers versus numerals in their writing.  Were there twelve days of Christmas or 12 days of Christmas?  Does my lord offer you a thousand swordsmen or 1000 swordsmen?
            Some of this confusion comes from journalistic standards.  A lot of non-fiction writing tends to follow the rule that everything below twelve is written out, but from 13 up you use numerals.  It varies a bit from publication to publication.  Sometimes the cutoff is ten or eleven, but it’s usually somewhere in the very early double-digits.
            That’s non-fiction, though.  Non-fiction is hard facts.  Here, we’re more concerned with making things up, yes?  With making them seem real, but not too real.
            My personal rule of thumb is that it looks very unnatural for people to talk in numbers.  We all speak in words, not numerals.  So when someone’s speaking, numbers should always be written out.  For example, in my new book, 14, someone might say “I live in room twenty-eight,” but then they’ll walk down the hall and go into room 28.  Dialogue is always written out, but numerals can show up in the prose.
            Now, there are a few exceptions to this.  Off the top of my head...
            First is cases where the numerals are part of a proper name.  No one should ever fire an Ay-Kay Forty-Seven or an Em-Sixteen.  The year is 2012, not twenty-twelve or two-thousand-twelve.  In Ex-Patriots, Captain Freedom is the commander of the Alpha 456th Unbreakables and speaks of them as such.  So when the numerals are part of a proper name, it’s okay for me to use them in dialogue.
            Second is in first person stories.  If you think about it, a first person story is really all dialogue, because the character is addressing the reader.  This site is mostly first person—me talking to you—and I tend to write things out most of the time.  So I need to be extra careful using numerals if I’m writing in first person.
            Third is screenplays.  I should always write out numbers in screenplays because if I don’t it messes up timing, especially if I’m doing it a lot.  I might write 4,321 to save space, but the actor still has to say “Four thousand three hundred and twenty one.”  Check out this clip from my very cliché-filled road trip movie.

BOB
One million bottles of beer on the wall, one million bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.  Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around...

Now compare it to this...

BOB
1,000,000 bottles of beer on the wall, 1,000,000 bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around, 999,999 bottles of beer on the wall.  999,999 bottles of beer on the wall, 999,999 bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around...

            This block of dialogue just got cut in half by using numerals instead of written out numbers.  Except it really didn’t.  It’s going to take just as long for the actor to say, and all that’s really happened is the producers, assistant directors, and script supervisor have a bad estimate for how long this will take to film.  Not only that, odds are I’m going to mess it up, too, because I’m thinking my script is shorter than it really is.
            So  keep that in mind when you’re writing that subtle reference to 007’s twentieth adventure.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about one of my favorite animated movies, and how it’s an example of wonderful storytelling.
            Until then, go write.

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