The most advanced, approachable book I’ve read on writing is Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. It’s divided into 50 chapters intended as 50 tools in the writer’s toolbox. Let’s look at one of those tools. I’ve expressed my own ideas in this piece, except when I explicitly paraphrase or quote Clark.

Tool 20
Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader

Writers constantly choose between 1, 2, 3, and 4-or-more. How many adjectives to describe something? How many ideas in a sentence? How many sentences in a paragraph? How many sections in a chapter?

Let’s look at our four options. First up …

The Power of One

Clark gives the example: “That girl is smart.”

Here the writer gives the reader no alternative. The reader can only focus on a single thing. The power of one focuses the reader on what the writer wants him to believe.

“Tom Wolfe once told William F. Buckley Jr. that if a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.”

When a writer is worried that readers may not believe something, the brevity of one comes in handy. Writers are liars. If you’re going to make something up and hope that others buy the lie, sometimes it pays to say it quickly and move on, leaving no time for debate. Speaking of debate …

Two. Different.

Clark gives the example: “That girl is smart and sweet.”

What just happened? To begin with, now the reader has to think and do a little more work (smart and sweet? Hmmm …). I believe this slows the reader down, which may or may not be what the writer wants at that time. Does the writer want the reader to turn the pages quickly at this point in the story? Or stop to ponder the girl’s nature? Twos are speed bumps.

The point that Clark makes is that the reader has to compare the two items. Twos clash. When I use two adjectives or adverbs together (I know, using adverbs–how scandalous! Adverbs are dangerous, but never eliminate a tool from your chest!), I normally want them to contrast with each other. “She smiled sweetly” doesn’t have the same potency as “She smiled viciously.” In this case it’s a verb and an adverb that create the two effect, because smiles are assumed to be sweet unless we’re told otherwise. “Smiling sweetly” is mostly redundant; “smiling viciously” is not.

Be careful when using two adjectives together that mean essentially the same thing. One is probably better. For example:

“It was a dark and stormy night; …” (dark and night are redundant together, as are stormy and dark).

“It was a stormy night; …” (better, sorry Snoopy)

When using two adjectives together, I often prefer ideas that contrast so they can be more interesting as a pair. For example:

“The sky was dark and twinkling.” (at least when the reader stops here, she gets an interesting contrast to contemplate).

Three: Encompasing, Magical, Whole

While the duality of two leaves the reader to resolve a battle (which is great when contrast is intended), three heals the kingdom. Three is lyrical, smooth, and elegant. Clark gives the example: “That girl is smart, sweet, and determined.”


Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Larry, Moe, and Curly.

All is well with the world. Is this why trilogies are so popular with high fantasy writers?

In my own writing, I like to use–in moderation–a good number of sentences with three verbs. “Jack grabbed the bottle, popped the cork, and downed the Champagne.” I feel a fluidity there that keeps the reader moving along, though this works best when used as a change of pace to other sentence structures. A similar option is a paragraph with three sentences: “Jack grabbed the bottle. His thumbs popped the cork. The sweet Champagne warmed him as it poured down his throat.”

Compare that to: “Jack grabbed the bottle and downed the Champagne.” Or, “Jack grabbed the bottle. The sweet Champagne warmed him as it poured down his throat.” I think a ‘two’ sentence, or a paragraph with two sentences, works optimally when there is tension and contrast like this: “Jack grabbed the bottle and then put it back down,” or “Jack grabbed the bottle. He looked at it for a few minutes and then put it back down.”

Four or More: When Will it Ever End?

Clark’s example: “That girl is smart, sweet, determined, and neurotic.” Feels different, right? Although I think in this example, there’s another effect involved. That’s a three (“smart, sweet, determined” are positive terms), contrasting with “neurotic,” so that the overall effect is something like a two wrapped up in a four.

Clark writes: “In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four.” But he goes on to say that there can be a literary effect with longer lists. He gives this example from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn:

I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster.

Here’s a four-or-more example from my own writing (my book, THE BLACK GOD’S WAR, with a novella-length introduction now available for $0.89 on Amazon or free on Smashwords):

They gave rise to a percussive din: rhythmic crunching of boots, hearts pounding against metal, out breaths exploding in unison, tens of thousands racing as one, muscling to live another hour beneath the goddess’s baleful sky.


Here is Clark’s summary:

  • Use one for power.
  • Use two for comparison, contrast.
  • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
  • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand

(see what he did there?)

Skilled writers make deliberate choices to use 1, 2, 3, or 4-or-more; they also like to mix things up and use them all.

In my own fantasy world, I would’ve liked to have been a major league pitcher, choosing a unique sequence of fastballs, changeups, curves, and sliders for each batter in each situation. Instead, I get to use 1, 2, 3, and 4 creatively as a writer.

You gotta keep the readers on their toes!

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This entry was posted on Friday, September 24th, 2010 at 3:54 am and is filed under Better Writing, Passion for Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 comments so far


You sold me on that book, bro.

Ben Godby recently posted..Fear not the kiddie pool- it is chlorinated

September 24th, 2010 at 6:34 am

I’ve noticed in my own writing that I’m a huge “three” person, but I never gave much thought to why. When you lay it all out like that, it’s a lot easier to understand the impact of different writing structures. Thanks for sharing…


September 24th, 2010 at 7:29 am

Nice article. It’s informative and to the point. I like the way you use lists, quotes, and examples. I can use this technique in my own writing to inform, entertain, amuse, and avoid repetitious structure.
Thanks. Writing Tools is a book I’ll definitely have to consider. Linda

September 24th, 2010 at 8:36 am
Moses Siregar III

@Ben: You won’t be disappointed.

@Maria: Thank you!

@L.C.: Ha! Thank you also.

I added a passage to the ‘four’ section from my own writing (from my novel).

September 24th, 2010 at 11:02 am

By the way, thanks for turning me on to “CommentLuv”. I hadn’t heard of it before, and I’ve now spent a big chunk of the afternoon piddling with it. [Shhh! Don’t tell my boss. 🙂 ]
Maria Elizabeth Romana recently posted..Halse Anderson’s “Speak” Labeled Pornography

September 24th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Just discovered your blog via Nathan Bransford’s blog. Loved the breakdown of the 1,2,3,4. I’m writing my second novel, a sequel to NO STONE UNTURNED, and I will keep these pointers in mind. Thanks.
Jeanette A. Fratto recently posted..Jeanettewrites- Jeanette Writes http-jeanettethewriterblogspotcom-spreftw

September 24th, 2010 at 4:16 pm
Moses Siregar III

@Maria: CommentLuv is great, huh?

@Jeanette: Thank you! And thanks for letting me know this post was mentioned on Nathan Bransford’s blog today.

September 24th, 2010 at 5:04 pm

An intriguing scheme, more intriguing because of it’s immediate applicability. I shall have to test it using Science, but for now Art is pleased.

I think it could be expanded to characters. Since a list of 1,2,3,4 adjectives is ‘tell, not show’, rather we can create 1-sided (what? that’s impossible! …precisely) characters who display one characteristic, 2-sided (‘flat’) characters, Triangle characters (‘supporting’), Square characters (‘basic main’), and it goes up and up to the point where your average reader won’t know the name of the geometric shape. That’s when it’s too much, and it’s time to focus.

(CommentLuv, it seems painless. I might as well keep the ole’ box checked and see what happens.)
David Barron recently posted..Rejection Letter

September 24th, 2010 at 7:34 pm
Moses Siregar III

I think there’s something to what you’re saying, David, when it comes to describing characters.

In fact, this whole idea of 1, 2, 3, and 4 is about a lot more than just adjectives, although that’s how Nathan Bransford wrote it up for his blog (no problem there, he must be a very busy guy!).

September 24th, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Right, I assume he’s using the simple sentences with adjectives for example, and you expand it to verbs and snips of description. It’s a very malleable scheme, this Complexity Grade, and thus a very portable one.

Watch a stand-up comic and it’ll come through just as well.
David Barron recently posted..Rejection Letter

September 24th, 2010 at 8:16 pm

The power of three exists in other art forms, too.

There’s a common element in baroque (and other) music called the “sequence”, where the same passage is repeated in quick succession at different pitches, usually rising or falling by a step each time. (Think of one of those noodly passages in Bach.) Almost all sequences happen in threes.

September 24th, 2010 at 9:26 pm

This is wonderful- simple- to the point. With your permission, may I use this with my high school creative writing class? I would copy the post into a word document and then give your blog credit at the top- (along with the book, which I am going to purchase now!) We have been working on description this week, and this fits in perfectly with our lesson!!

Thank you

September 25th, 2010 at 10:31 am
Moses Siregar III

No problem, Amanda. Yes. Thank you for asking.

September 25th, 2010 at 10:57 am

I own this book; it is one of my favorite guidebooks. I have found it very helpful in analyzing my own writing style and improving upon it. This was an excellent post regarding one of my favorite chapters in this book.

September 25th, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I to own this book and love the advice and this too is my favorite chapter.

September 21st, 2013 at 7:16 am

Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for
your blog. You have some really good posts and I believe I would be a good asset.
If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.

Please send me an e-mail if interested. Cheers!
Kdp amazon recently posted..Kdp amazon

May 30th, 2016 at 5:32 am

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