Day10: The Power of Lists

By guest blogger, Melanie Unruh

I know what you’re probably thinking. This post is going to be some kind of pep talk in the vein of How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  But let’s assume that you already have all the friends your heart could desire and that you are effective at everything you do.

If you are a list-maker, please raise your hand. Now keep it raised so I can compile a list of those of us who…Okay, I joke. But in all seriousness, besides helping us keep track of our lives, our chores, our food, our ideal places we’d like to be published, lists can make for pretty great writing tools. I LOVE lists. They are versatile more than we probably even realize. You can use them as back-matter that helps you brainstorm the words you want to get on the page, or you can put them directly into the writing in any number of ways.

I find it’s useful, particularly when working on a longer project, to write character sketches. These sketches consist of lists of facts about each character. It may sound dull or like a lot of unnecessary engine revving (add car metaphors to my list of things to “work on”), but it has really helped me fully imagine my characters, as well as keep track of their various tics, pet peeves, ailments, and the like (I’ve recently added a section for each character’s self-penned six word memoir, which has been interesting). External lists can also function as a way to keep track of the story arc. Sometimes, even with shorter pieces, it can be easy to forget what happened when. Hello, flashback within a flashback—where the hell are we now?

As far as internal list-making is concerned, this is where you can do a lot of experimenting. I once wrote a story in which the main character charted and tried to understand her own neuroses in the form of bulleted lists. Each list told the reader factual things (such as the items her husband left behind when he deserted her), but also revealed things about the character on a deeper level (like the fact that she doesn’t realize it’s a pile of crap no one would likely come back for).  What started out as more of a playful exercise (involving a working list of sex toy history) turned into the defining structure of my first publishable story.

I’m fascinated by list-makers. One list doesn’t fit all, so I’m constantly trying to think of new list “formats” to incorporate into my work, things like crossword puzzles and dictionary entries, which may not seem “listy,” but function in similar ways.  If we’re going to write about people convincingly, it’s important to get inside their (real or imagined) heads and try to process the world the same way that they do.  Lists can give us a way in.


External List

Make a list of all the things one of your characters is ashamed of.  Choose one and write about it in scene.

Internal List

Have your character devise a list of all the things he/she has always wanted to say to another character but has never been able to for whatever reason(s).  Have the second character appear when the first is mid-list.