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.
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 …
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.
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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