Writing Numbers in Fiction – What’s the Difference?

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As with many aspects of fiction writing, numbers have many conventions and considerations. And those conventions, just like the rest, are often trumped and overruled by personal style choice, meaning most of what follows are guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.

While these don’t have to be followed, these are guidelines and publisher preferences for a reason: they aid readability and consistency in your manuscript.

This post will discuss:

  • general usage
  • time, dates, and ages
  • weapons and ammunition
  • the exceptions

Let’s get stuck in!

General usage

Many style guides advocate using numerals for numbers between 1 and 10 and to use words for anything above.

Fiction, however, is more flexible. As readers we want to ‘hear’ the words on the page and numerals just don’t have that effect compared to spelt-out numbers:

I have been coming here for fifteen years.

The scorching summer heat reached thirty-five degrees.

Using the spelt-out versions in dialogue and first-person narration lends a hand in establishing character voice. After all, they may say 250 as two-fifty, two hundred and fifty, two fiddy/fitty, depending on personal style or dialect.

The same goes for numbers under a hundred that are followed by hundred, thousand, million, etc: the secret vault has been unopened for five hundred years. Until now.

Use numerals for per cent, unless in dialogue and at the beginning of a sentence, where it’s best to spell them out:

‘You have roughly eighty per cent chance of succeeding.’

He’d told me there was 80 per cent chance I’d succeed.

(Also note per cent is more popular in British English, while percent in favoured in American English.)

Spelling out the word rather than using the symbol is, as mentioned above, in aid of letting the reader ‘hear’ the words, and so the same follows for other symbols – pound and degrees, not £ and °C.

It’s typically good practice to not start a sentence with a numeral, regardless of the number. If it does, give the sentence a little jig.

Time, dates, and ages

Time

Time is best spelt out when it’s quarter to/past the hour or half past. And using noon and midnight rather than numerals helps to avoid confusion. If you need to be specific, use numerals: he clocked into work at exactly 9:03.

When using a.m. or p.m., leave a space between the number and the abbreviation, but don’t include a space within the abbreviations themselves. You can also use either the time expressed as words or as a numeral, with either lowercased letters and periods or small caps, with or without periods:

I left at 3.35 a.m.

I left at 3.35 am/a.m.

‘Why are you calling me? It’s four bloody AM!’.

Most advice would hold to never pair spelt-out numbers with the abbreviations. But, as previously, let context be the guide. Pairing a word with a.m./p.m. works when it’s a rounded time: the thief broke in at five a.m. last night. (As in, an estimate, unless it was a very punctual thief!)

Dates

Dates can be written in a variety of ways:

  • 25 November/25 November 2018
  • November 25/ November 25, 2018
  • twenty-fifth of November

If there are a few dates in quick succession, using numerals may be the better choice – a perfect example of when the broken ‘rules’ assist in making the text more readable.

Decades may be rendered either spelt out (the eighties) or in numerals with an apostrophe (’80s). It is never 80’s, or 1990’s, unless you’re using the year as a possessive. Also, take note of the use of the proper apostrophe, not an opening quote mark.

(A sneaky tip: to easily type this in Word, hold down Ctrl and double press the single quote mark, which inverts it. No need to thank me.)

Specific years are also best written out as numerals (the year was 1967).

Ages

Treat ages as any other compound adjective (hyphenate all the words that describe the person):

She is a four-year-old girl.

My eight-year-old is learning guitar.

Not:

She is a four-year-old-girl.

If the year comes after whoever or whatever it’s describing, hyphens can be done away with: my girl is four years old.

Weapons and ammunition

Just like how brand names should be written according to how the companies spell them, styling of weapons and ammunition should follow suit:

  • AK-47
  • Type 63
  • 22LR
  • 9mm

However, the styling of weapons and ammunition changes in dialogue – as do most things – and characters may refer to them in different ways:

‘Pass me the AK’

‘Pass me the forty-seven’

‘Is that a ten gauge?’

The main thing to consider is who is talking when guns are part of the conversation. Does the character have enough firearm knowledge to use the lingo? Or would they stick to ‘rifle’, ‘pistol’, ‘the automatic’? Either way, if manufacturer names are mentioned, remember to capitalise them.

The exceptions

As always with fiction, things are never straightforward. Below are some more considerations.

  • there are times where numerals make prose easier for the reader to digest. When you want to write precise numbers like safe codes (she memorised the code, 8715, and threw the slip of paper in the flames), specific money value (the bill came to £50.82), or other number strings, using numbers are preferred
  • this goes for decimal number, which should also be written as numerals (the company was worth 20.5 million)
  • brands should have their style followed: Chanel N°5, 7UP, 7-Eleven
  • another exception is when you’re writing displayed text as it appears on some form of media, such as a sign, billboard, electronic device etc:

My focus lasered on the screen. 3. The silences between each beat of my heart stretched to an eternity. 2. Every limb tightened, poised. Ready. 1. Slow breaths… GO!

The text read C U at 2. Can’t wait!

For elements like this, allow context to dictate how the numbers are displayed – if it makes sense that they’re displayed as numerals, don’t let the typical guidelines get in the way.

  • as with brand names, when the number is included in the name of a proper noun, it’s best to use a numeral: Room 47, Channel 4, page 9
  • sometimes, there are names that are so widely understood as being displayed with numerals that it would be odd otherwise: 9/11, 5G, 3D, 4K. Even in dialogue, these would look unwieldly spelt out and, always with the reader in mind, it’s best to avoid doing so

Final thoughts...

Most conventions of writing can be bent in fiction, and numbers are one of them!

Readers of fiction want to ‘hear’ what they real, and numerals and symbols detract from that experience. However, as we have seen, there are exceptions.

Ask yourself if the context calls for the use of a numeral, despite the ‘rules’ – is the number precise? Are you portraying a form of media? Would the reader be used to interpreting it as a number (9/11, 3D)?

I hope this post has clarified some of the nuances that go into the treatment of numbers in fiction.

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