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How do you tell your reader that a number is a numerologically important number? Some people use numerology in their books and attach secret meanings to some numbers, but there are a lot of times where you would use numbers without wanting to attach a secret meaning to it. How do you distinguish normal numbers from those with special numerological relevance in your writing? Can you give a few examples on how to do this?

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    Find the film Drowning by Numbers (1988) directed by Peter Greenaway. It features a Greenaway-gimmick where numbers (usually visual, sometimes dialog) appear sequentially as a non-diegetic game within the film, in counterpoint to a looping story structure (not time travel). It's just counting, but it punctuates the story pacing in interesting ways that feel poignant and fateful.
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 27 at 23:32
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    Do you need that as part of your plot, or this will be just a hidden detail which would reward an attentive reader?
    – Alexander
    Jul 28 at 0:04
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    "Then, shalt thou count to three. No more. No less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out." - (Monty Python - the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch)
    – alephzero
    Jul 28 at 12:26
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    But I thought the entirety of numerology was ascribing undue significance to arbitrary and coincidental numbers. It would seem to me that a reader attaching importance to some number with no intended or actual importance is what numerology is all about. Jul 28 at 14:17
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    @DWKraus OP isn't asking how to do numerology, they're asking how to differentiate in their writing numbers that are intended to be a part of some numerological purpose in the story from numbers that just happen to be a part of the text for plain description so that readers don't go reading meaning into the numbers that weren't intended to have meaning. I think any such endeavor is hopeless, since numerology is typified by people reading meaning into numbers where there is none intended, but it's still a writing question. Jul 28 at 21:45
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I'll preface this answer by noting that there's no way to make sure all your readers will pick up on something, no matter how obvious you try and make it. So don't worry about making it too obvious, because readers who already did pick up on it may feel as though you're insulting their intelligence.

Having said that, I think you can rely on simple pattern recognition - if the same number keeps appearing in your story, then people are going to pick up on it. The film The Number 23 revolves entirely around an in-universe example of this, where the protagonist keeps noticing the number 23 and it clues him in to a wider mystery.

I've used this myself in one of my own story universes: it has its own numerology, tied to its creation myth, wherein six is a "good" number and eight is an "evil" one. As a result, I try to find subtle ways to incorporate those numbers into the stories in that universe, in good/bad contexts respectively. The aim is that, by doing that, people will pick up on the fact that those numbers keep appearing in those contexts, and in turn pick up on the numerology.

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    I remember being stuck on a long haul flight beside someone I had to be polite to (an engineer from another company). He was a narcissist & Illeist and told grandiose and - frankly - unbelievable stories about himself. He didn't release it but the same numbers kept coming up in his stories (47 and 66 to be precise). So yes, people notice these things, you don't have to call them out. Jul 28 at 11:38
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    4,8,15,16,23,42
    – Sidney
    Jul 29 at 19:56
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Explicitly inform the audience of the numerology.

I'm sort of reminded of the web serial Unsong, which revolves around Jewish mysticism being real to the point where it can be industrialized, and which repeatedly states throughout the text that nothing is ever a coincidence as a result. So, in such a setting, if you want to add in some numerology, you could just go and say something like "The number of Mr. so-and-so's apartment was 738, which is also the value of the word "devil" in Jewish gematria. This is not a coincidence, as nothing is ever a coincidence, and Mr. so-and-so truly was a devil."

Make it explicit, mention it in-universe, and bring it up whenever it's plot relevant, and maybe a few times when it isn't.

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  • Why in a world where 738 means "devil", would we ever give an apartment that number? In the real world, buildings have "omitted" the 13th floor, with significantly less reason than that magic actually works and is triggered by numbers.
    – Jedediah
    Jul 29 at 21:36
  • This might fly if the entire story is written in third-person omniscient, but if you do this in third-person limited, or first-person, it's going to feel jarring (or else the reader is going to interpret this as the protagonist's opinion rather than fact - leading to e.g. "Oh, I see, the protagonist is superstitious").
    – Kevin
    Jul 29 at 21:40
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Sometimes you have numbers that mean nothing, and sometimes you have numbers that mean something. How can you distinguish between them without shoehorning it in or shoving it in the readers face, spelling it out, making it corny?

Have a character or the narrator notice that number more than once, or briefly fixate on it.

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From "The Colour of Magic" by Terry Pratchett:

"Don’t say it!” he hissed. “Don’t say it and we might get out!"

“Get out? How did you get in? Don’t you know-”

“Don’t say it!”

Twoflower backed away from this madman.

“Don’t say it!”

“Don’t say what?”

“The number.”

“Number?” said Twoflower. “Hey, Rincewind-”

“Yes, number! Between seven and nine. Four plus four.”

“What, ei-”

Rincewind’s hands clapped over the man’s mouth. “Say it and we’re doomed. Just don’t think about, right. Trust me!”

“I don’t understand,” wailed Twoflower.

Rincewind relaxed slightly; which was to say that he still made a violin string look like a bowl of jelly.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s try and get out. And I’ll try and tell you.”

This is after prior discussions about how wizards shouldn't have anything to do with the number 8. This is satire, of course, but it gets the point across about it being okay to be obvious.

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I have three suggestions that I think can be taken as points on a continuum, from “spell it out in very plain terms” to “don’t tell them anything whatsoever”.

Tell them outright

Maybe your characters discuss numerology and point out the significance of the numbers. Or it could be internal monologue, or narration, or whatever. But the text explicitly calls out which numbers are meaningful, and what their meanings are.

Give them the tools

You could incorporate enough information into your writing to act as a primer on whatever sort of numerology you’re into, without specifically applying it to your significant numbers. Maybe a character analyses a number that isn’t plot-relevant, demonstrating techniques a canny reader could use on the numbers that do have story significance.

Do nothing

Assuming your numerological system is a real-world one, you might play it coy, letting (hoping!) your readers pick up on the use of numerologically significant numbers without you ever doing anything to point them out.


As I say, these are points on a continuum, and you can interpolate other possibilities from them. I daresay this kind of spectrum could be used for all kinds of information in stories (and I daresay someone’s come up with it before and explained it better than I could).

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Rather than a writing solution, I would suggest a typographic solution. If a number is intended to have special meaning, to disambiguate it from other numbers that happen to appear due to plain description and no secret/special meaning, have it emphasized via bold or being in another color.

The two gentleman went to the counter and ordered thirteen pretzels.

"Hey, what was the number for the pizza place again? Was it 123-777-4567?".

Beyond that, as others have suggested, somewhere in the text of the story there should be some explanation into which numbers are important and why, but this need not occur before any such bolded or emphasized numbers occur in the text.

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