[Writing Prompt] By The Numbers

This prompt was inspired by a link Dan Blank shared. Apparently there’s weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the artistic community about how the rise of data is crushing creativity.

The gist is: storytelling is changing. We’re not writing or consuming stories the same way. What does that mean for creativity?

Personally I think it’s awesome. Some of the best stories I’ve read in recent years eschewed the straight narrative (this happend, then that happened, crisis, climax, resolution, the end). One was written as answers to a police investigation, some have been written as lists, or tweets. A recent best-selling novel is written in second person, as a faux self-help book.

Of course, the straight narrative will always have its place, and it’s certainly a helpful structure on which to hang a story (more on that tomorrow), but it can help us stay out of a rut if we try new things. So:

The Prompt

Write a Story That Uses Numbers To Shape The Structure.


  • You might time-stamp each of the ‘scenes’ within the story
  • You might write snippets of things that happen in different houses in one street, using house numbers to break up the flow. Pull the whole thing together with one theme or by having one character who pops up in each different house for some reason.
  • You can use weight: the weight of a feather, the weight of a newborn, the weight your main character was at 15, then the weight she is at 30 and what that means. The weight a crane can lift.
  • Use multiple numbers in your story to tie together each scene (or break them apart).
  • Have fun!

8 thoughts on “[Writing Prompt] By The Numbers”

  1. Great use of numbers– almost more important than the characthers. Many people count. I used to count things like how many diapers I would have to fold before my last one was potty trained. Obviously this was before pampers and the number was too big to keep counting. I counted clean clothes in the basket as I folded and clean dishes unloaded from the dishwasher. I don’t know what need it filled and I don’t do it anymore. It inspired me, however, to write a story which I called The Countess. She was a counter who found herself after an awful accident in a substandard nursing home counting everything into columns.
    Your story has suspense from the very first sentence. I’m thinking, Accident? I was even with David in the counting of cars, and the categories of color, the complexity which caught me up, even diverted me from the suspense and then Wham! Really a good read. I liked your pace, your sense of place, even though it’s just a highway. Well done, very well done! Flash is such fun.

  2. Hey Lisa, that was (ghoulishly) fun. I got quite interested in David and wanted to know more about him. Too bad, huh? Loved the use of the word “swale”. It slowed things, changed the tone, at exactly the right moment. Well done!

  3. Numbered Structure by Lisa Combs (storycarver)
    David checked his rear view mirror. Speed limit 65 didn’t keep him from going 80. He tapped fingers to the rapid beat of the music blaring from the radio. Colors of the cars and trucks on the road formed an on going pattern. David often lost himself in number analysis when he felt stressed. Three blue, two black, seven white, a gray. Three two seven one. He searched to match that pattern. He only used cars going in against him if he had gone three miles with out matching the pattern. The car clock read two twenty-seven. Not a match, off by a digit, missing a digit. He pondered how he could make that part of the pattern. Sometimes distractions were distracted. He followed the rules to his own game and slowed down by five miles per hour. He started over. There, if he used vehicles coming up from behind him. Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue. Five blue, two red, one yellow, two trucks. Trucks not in the sequence, disregard. Two white and two silver. Five two one, two. Match that. He checked the rear view mirror and began. He checked mileage. There it starts with five white cars, two blue vans, one? One, one, one. He searched. And there was a lone red car coming to pass him. And now two. He needed two.

    He looked at the passenger of the car passing him. He saw an arm come up. Two fingers. Peace sign. Two heads showed up in the window. As he formed the thought that fingers and heads didn’t count, he saw a glint. The gun. Two shots. Did that make the match, then. David would never know. He slumped over the steering wheel, the car veered into the other lane of traffic, between two semis, off on the emergency lane, down into the grassy swale.

    The receipt stuck in the cup with the lottery ticket seemed out of place to the officer checking David’s pulse. “DOA, call a bus,” he called to his partner. “Come look at this. Pour Luck for the Bastard.” The officer looked at the ticket. 52125212. A match. The lottery of pattern squared.

    Numbers shape structure of existence. He was born on January twenty-third. 123, ’45. Life metered out. And finally, death on June 7 ’89. The ambulance arrived, boarded him onto the gurney. The tow truck, number 10, loaded David’s Lamborghini onto the flat bed. The driver handed the officer the claim check. Caught in the search for the matching pattern the officer found it just as an SUV careened across the lane and rammed him. The officer was thrown into the air and landed in a heap. His watch stopped upon impact and would forever read 11:12 AM. Numbers shape the structure of transformation.

  4. I used numbers to guide the audience of Creative Ageing day to which I gave my keynote.
    I do believe in stories to touch and inspire and make remember what you say.
    I begun at 60 when I stopped my day to day job and the story how lost I felt. And something did arrive.
    At 70 I had to recognise I was no more young or middle age, so I wanted to do something to remember, and through obstacles and changing path, I did. Then opened a blog: il y a dela vie après 70, now has 9 years going on each morning.
    At 74 I changed culture, From Paris to London and soon begun to speak in public, tell stories, not only write them. And at 77, discovered comedy and begin to go to open mic, as standup comedian.

    All my keynote was signposted by years, numbers, even if the numbers were not important.
    I do believe we can indeed write and tell our stories in a variety of ways.
    – this is not the whole story, today just a comment.

    Make a list of hundred places you lived or went, was also a prompt by numbers. I did and no story came. A day later from the business have seen a crumbling hotel and I found my story: remembering the 101th place the worst I ever lived in my life. Going home, the story flew out from me.

    Numbers, can help!

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