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In my story, 12 year old Ruth has visions from another place and time which lead her to gather a group of kids for a quest. She is told there will be 18 kids, but she can only find 17 with the specific requirement. They travel together and, upon arriving, discover a stowaway. This boy knows he belongs with the group but he doesn’t tell anyone until well into the book (the reader also doesn’t know). Everyone else thinks he just came along to annoy them. The 18th child is an important character and his journey is pivotal to the story.

Why 18? Because it’s a Jewish-themed book and 18 is an important number in Judaism (it is related to the word for life and is often used for luck).

There is no specific task that requires 18 people and there is no need to highlight the number too much. It's there because it felt right to do so and, at this point, the characters are set. The number comes up a couple of times early in the story and, so far, not since. I'm looking for subtle ways to reference it.

In what ways can I evoke this symbolism and incorporate it into the story?

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    Are you looking for ways to reinforce the meaning of 18, or more ways to have 18 show up in the story, or reasons they need 18, or something else? – Monica Cellio Mar 18 at 23:00
  • @MonicaCellio To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I'm working it. I already have the 18 kids and they're all there, so that part's done. It's more of if I need to explain it and how, or how to incorporate small hints about it...reasons and reinforcements. Because as Galastel points out, it will be dead obvious to Jewish readers so I need something there, I'm just not sure what. – Cyn Mar 18 at 23:32
  • Oh, so you're looking for a way to signal the significance of 18, it sounds like. – Monica Cellio Mar 19 at 2:02
  • Any possibility that the ancient Egyptians mightn't notice the 18 and comment on it? – UniquelyAndara Mar 19 at 2:48
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    @Cyn: your structure reminded me a bit of the Hobbit... with the 12 year old as Gandalf (quest initiator) and a bunch of random dwarfs (the other 16 kids) and Bilbo (the tag along who didn't belong hobbit as the 18th child main character) – ashleylee Mar 19 at 16:54
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I see two parts to your question: signaling that 18 is significant, and signaling why it is significant. Assuming that you'll have Jewish readers too, don't skimp on the first part -- you want to give them something to notice and figure out, too.

Another answer addresses ways to show why 18 is significant. To show that 18 is significant, have it show up in various ways in the vicinity of the kids -- at a meal there's a candelabra with 18 candles; something happens at 18 past the hour; something costs 18 coins; a shelf contains 18 books; an office or hotel room is #18; etc. For an example (from TV, not writing) of this sort of thing, consider the TV show LOST, in which the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 24 were significant both together and separately, and some of those references you only notice after the fact, once you're looking for those numbers. You can slip 18s into your story in the same way. Make sure they always have something to do with the kids, and the astute reader will eventually notice that there are 18 kids, too. Avoid having 18 show up in other contexts.

  • Interesting ideas. I'll see if I can weave that in. – Cyn Mar 19 at 4:22
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You can use factorization. Some task takes 6 groups of 3, say making camp. Another takes 3 groups of six, say one group of six stands watch while the other two sleep. At some point, they divide into 2 groups of 9; maybe 9 males and 9 females, and in another 9 pairs of two.

You can find ways to emphasize the 18 by the ways in which you can factor 18, and indirectly that is how you can geometrically arrange 18. A group of six can be arranged in a hexagon, for example, as watch-points on a camp perimeter.

Find odd or mystical coincidences. There are 12 months in a year. What if one of the kids notices that they have 1 birthday for every month, and then one more birthday for every other month? So 12 have a partner in their birth month, and 6 do not. What does it mean? It doesn't have to mean anything, it can be just something they have fun with in an idle moment; joking about the partners. But it draws attention to their number. It can have meaning; you could use this early in the story as an excuse to pair some characters that become friends; perhaps two kids with the same birthday. Childhood friendships can originate in coincidental likenesses.

There doesn't have to ultimately be an explicit plot reason for 18, but by playing with the number you can draw attention to 18 and make 18 play a subtle role in shaping the story and the relationships.

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    Also, 18 is a really large group size for people to notice casually -- it's not like a smaller group where you name five people and readers notice there are five. If you name all the children, few people are going to count them up. So finding ways to divide them into groups will help people notice how many there are. – Monica Cellio Mar 19 at 14:13
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How difficult/dangerous is their quest? You can have the 18 travelers manage to escape from dangerous situations unhurt time and time again, and generally keep having miraculously good luck. Similarly, if there's a situation where the 18 aren't all together (suppose a couple of them wander off sightseeing), that's when their good luck should fail - and only reappear when all 18 are together again.

If you're hoping to make the symbolism a little more obvious (for non-Jewish readers), you could have one of them joke that it's because they have a lucky number (similar to how you might joke about having bad luck on a Friday the 13th). Or, when there's only 17 of them, one can say "We need one more for good luck" - or something to that effect.

  • Well, they time travel to Ancient Egypt and work alongside the slaves and then head out with them on the Exodus, not knowing when (or if) they're going to get home. So high danger level, but damped down because it's a kid's book. None of them were raised as Jews so the number 18 means nothing to them... – Cyn Mar 19 at 0:03
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    @Cyn If the number 18 means nothing to them, they'll need to have the symbolism explained to them too. I like Galastel's "lucky charm" idea - maybe the runaway slaves didn't succeed in escaping until they had 18 time travelers to help them out, and now they think the 18 are lucky. – Evil Sparrow Mar 19 at 0:22
  • Yes, they need it explained to them too for sure. I'll think about the lucky charm idea, thanks. – Cyn Mar 19 at 0:26
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You've said it yourself: 18 = life. It follows that had there only been 17 travellers, they would not have come home alive. Preferably every child, but particularly the stowaway, must have a crucial role to play. Otherwise, they're not necessary, right?

You could play more with the idea. Your 18 travellers might turn out to be somehow necessary for the survival of people around them, making them a "lucky charm" for those nearby. Again, however, all 18 would have to somehow be necessary.

To a Jewish reader, the link 18-life is very very obvious, so it becomes a question of how you employ it. It's not something that might be missed, but readers might wonder how you put that symbol to good use. (Non-Jewish readers would have to google it, I suppose.)

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    This non-Jewish potential reader wouldn't have Googled it, because I wouldn't have even considered the number 18 had any significance. There would be an obvious significance in a small number (e.g. 3 or 4) where each person has to contribute something critical for the task to succeed, but (for a non-Jew) why 18, rather than 15, 23, or whatever? – alephzero Mar 19 at 0:38
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    @Galastel I think "there must be 18 people" needs a context, otherwise it makes no sense (and the OP has said that "I'm not going into detail with all 18 of them" which seems to leave the "why 18" question hanging in the air). Maybe the story needs to make it clear that this is a society or culture where numbers are important for more than just counting things. – alephzero Mar 19 at 1:00
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    I would have thought it an arbitrary choice of 18. The significance would have escaped me. Since I am not the target audience, that is not a problem – Rasdashan Mar 19 at 1:04
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    Working this into the story shouldn't be too hard. After all, when Ruth is told (in the vision) "there will be 18 kids", it would be perfectly natural for her to ask "Why 18? Why is this important?" Maybe the vision tells her why. Maybe she does her own research in the story. Either way, the reader gets the message. – alephzero Mar 19 at 1:12
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    For those curious. Hebrew letters are also numbers. So, any word represents a number. The word for life is also literally the number 18. Given that, it should be easy enough for a character with a Jewish background, say Ruth, to read much into the number and make the connection in a way that any audience can understand it. If her internal monologue focuses on the number in a meaningful way that would be enough. – Kirk Mar 20 at 17:10
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Exposition from The Mentor

If your story has a Mentor, Wise Old (Wo)Man, Role Model, etc. this is a good person to provide hints around symbolism. By nature, these characters are generally assumed to be very knowledgeable, but usual have reasons or personality traits to be vague with the info they give out. Something as simple as commenting "18 of you... That is a lucky number, young ones." would suffice. Make more or less vague as necessary, from them commenting that it symbolizes life in their religion, to simply advising the group to remain whole.

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    As a matter of fact, I do. It's Miriam (sister to Moses and Aaron). This is just after the kids arrive: Miriam stepped back. “There are 17 of you,” she told Ruth. Ruth looked down. “I know you asked for 18 but the children that came from the Jews of Barberry Lake, well there are only 17 of us. Does it matter?” “Perhaps not,” Miriam replied. “18 is a powerful number, but we welcome all who have come.” – Cyn Mar 19 at 20:28
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Just find small situations that make the link:

  • The duck had 18 ducklings.
  • On the 18th day they found something important

These sorts of things will reinforce the life and luck connection without being too obvious about it (through it may be a bit subtle for kids).

Maybe some tasks come in 18s: Gather 18 olive branches, etc. For kids, you may be able to go a bit heavy handed with that one.

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Speaking as someone who has to restrain himself from ramming symbols down the readers' throats, maybe you've already done enough. The number will jump out at people who already know its significance, and unless your purpose is to be didactic (probably not a good idea), that's all you need for it to do.

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