Good Lists Make Great Stories

 

 

On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop. (Credit for the exercise goes to my writing prof/writer husband, Pinckney, who is an amazing teacher.)

Do you create lists for yourself? I’m most prone to make lists when I’m very busy around the holidays, need to do a brain dump for all the things I need to do for a project, or I’m packing for travel. Even the least list-like people usually have mental checklists they use. Think: unlock car, get in, turn on engine, buckle up, adjust climate, charge phone, light cigarette, put car in gear. Or, make coffee, unlock door, take dog outside, get paper, lock door, feed dog, make breakfast, read paper. An airplane or helicopter pilot doesn’t fly if their checklist isn’t completed. If you write down all the things you usually do in a particular order, you’ll have a list.

Directions–whether to a particular location or describing how to put something together–are another sort of list.

The glorious thing about using lists in stories and other writing is that they are a perfect shorthand for defining characters and setting scenes.

Some famous lists from literature:

Oft-quoted packing list from Joan Didion’s The White Album

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

So, it’s not fiction. But we get an astonishingly clear picture of Didion, the person and the writer, in a fairly small space. Bourbon, aspirin, Tampax, typewriter–though where’s the underwear? Perhaps it was too delicate a mention for her? If so, that definitely says a lot about her.

 

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatcher, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

A scathing sentence, isn’t it? Two lists that condemn both practices and and entire philosophy.

 

Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has a story in which each line begins with “If.” At least I think it was “If.” Anyway, it was a good story, as I recall.

 

Johnny Cash’s To-Do List

“THINGS TO DO TODAY!

1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice Piano

NOTES: Not write notes”

This says so much about Johnny Cash. Or another sensitive man, musician, lover.

 

Bridget Jones’s Diary, New Year’s Resolution list

One of the most famous lists in recent literature. Find it. Read it. Even if it’s not your flavor of fiction. Utterly defines her character and is a brilliant precursor for the entire novel.

From my novel, The Stranger Inside

“There are two carefully folded summer dresses, both V-neck and in patterns she might have chosen for herself, one more tailored than the other. Beneath them is a pair of white Capri pants and two pairs of soft linen shorts. Then several linen shirts in pastel colors, one a loose button-down. As she takes the clothes from the bag, she lays them out on the bed. The tags say Nordstrom, and the linen pieces are marked as having been on sale. She smiles when she opens the two shoeboxes to find a pair of buff kitten-heel slides that go with the dresses, and a pair of flat Tory Burch sandals. It’s as though she’s been visited by a fairy, but she knows the fairy was surely Diana.

Opening the third bag, she laughs. There’s more tissue, but it’s wrapped around a clutch of panties that spill out like silky water over her hand and onto the bed. At the bottom of the bag is a diaphanous pink cotton nightgown with satin ties at the shoulders. While everything else is very close to what she’d wear, the nightgown strikes her as bridal and girlish. Still, what a surprise it all is. She realizes she hasn’t really smiled in days.”

(Don’t be fooled. This is one of the novel’s very few quiet moments. After all, there’s a stranger occupying Kimber’s house and he has possession of all her clothes.)

 

__________

Are those enough lists for you? Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

Every list tells a story. Go make one!

Do you have any favorite literary lists? What lists have you made that could be stories? How have you used lists in your work?

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

22 thoughts on “Good Lists Make Great Stories

  1. Dear Laura.
    First on my list is to thank you for sparking the brilliant and exciting possibility of writing, or reading/finding lists of… just about anything.

    Second, thank you again. There’s so many list-worthy items/tasks/thoughts/events /places to explore for my novel – my protagonist is an ocd-driven recluse.

    Third, thank KZ bloggers for all the fabulous content.

    And look! Lists make lovely white space on the page. X Jay

  2. Jodi Picoult is an awesome writer who chooses thought-provoking topics and humanizes the heck out of them by showing all sides in human terms. Some I’ve read include end-of-life/pulling the plug, grief, and abortion as topics. Even a thriller writer could learn something by reading a few of her novels.

    If someone gave you a daily list of an unknown person, you’d probably be able to figure out their age and priorities. Kids are about chores and fun things. High school and college is about assignments and classes. Drinking beer and partying don’t need no stinkin’ list. Mom lists are about the kids and what they need. The older you get the more important the list because of memory yet the list is about you and maybe one other person rather than everybody else. I tend toward lists of things I need to get at the hardware, grocery, and drug store, and only major chores or small chores I might forget like making fresh hummingbird food. The paper calendar is my list of birthdays and doctor appointments.

    My daily writer lists with the exception of my book bible were quick jotted notes about the scene I was writing and what I wanted to include– plot points, descriptive points, and character points as well as the questions I wanted to answer and ask. If I didn’t have enough points, the scene went away and the points were moved elsewhere.

    • I beg to differ – Drinking beer and partying don’t need no stinkin’ list.

      Buy beer. Adults do this three days ahead. Punks 10 minutes before the store closes.
      Snacks
      Ice
      How much partying do you plan? Condoms?

    • Great list additions, Marilynn. I especially appreciate the mention of using lists to keep a book on track. Moving points/elements if you don’t have enough to justify a scene is brilliant.

  3. I am working on a series about an All-American girl-next-door, Lisa, who comes from an extremely wealthy family who was taught by her Mom and Dad how to handle wealth and power and make them secondary, or even thirdendary (okay, tertiary) in her life.

    When in the third grade, she meets a beautiful girl, a member of the local Aransa Indian tribe. (There is no such tribe, so I made up everything about it.) They grew to consider themselves twins even though they were not ethnically related. The reason was, there were born two minutes apart, Lisa in the local hospital, the Indian girl in her home. Lisa family had health insurance. The Indian girl’s family paid a tribal midwife $25 to deliver her, and the impecunious little tribe paid the midwife another $25.

    That illustrates the differences between the girls’ families. In their third grade year, they decide they want to be sisters. The only way for them to do that is for Lisa to undergo the simple act of tribal adoption. But in the simple act, Lisa winds up with three fathers.

    Lisa also has a boyfriend from the sixth grade on until she marries him. Although non a gangster by any means, Davy is somewhat repulsive. From a poor family as well, Davy is, well, . . . Davy.

    With no promises or prospects, Davy decides in high school that he will join the U.S. Marines. Lisa also decides to join the Marines.

    Hence, the lists,. Lisa’s adventures start while she is in the Marines. Though beautiful and tiny of stature, Lisa gets involved in the matter of hunting down cryptid creatures–bigfoot, dogmen, and so forth.

    So, from time-to-time, I include a list of Marine armament and equipment that she will either have to have or is issued by the Marines or some other government agency. The reason for the differences in these list is that the Marines sometimes change their arms, equipment, or other stuff.

    So, having never been in the service of our country, I have to study and keep myself current on the things in the list, from a laymen’s point of view. This model of Sig Sauer sidearm recently adopted by the Marines: does it have a magazine of 15 or 17 rounds? How do you change magazines? Would it be theoretically capable of bringing down such creatures if she encounters one without her M4 rifle in hand?

    The Marine uniforms, dress, utility, or other, change from time to time. Recently, the Marines adopted a new cover–peaked cap–for females. It is like the traditional male cover. Previously, the females wore a cap that made them look as if they were in the French foreign legion.

    So I don’t look putting together lists as tedium. It’s fun to keep Lisa looking like the U.S. Marine she is.

    • Thanks, Jim! One of the lists my husband uses with this exercise is from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The military doesn’t run without lists.

  4. My degree is in aviation, my labs had wings and propellers. I am a licensed pilot. Checklists are drilled into your head.

    Recall Capt. Sully who put is Airbus down in the Hudson in 2009? It wasn’t a miracle, it was training – and checklists. What do do when an engine fails? ATC emergency procedures? Ditching instructions. All checklists. And knowing when to reach for the list? Training.

    This is a checklist for pilot training. I love lists.
    https://www.cpaviation.com/images/downloads/C172-Checklist-9.27.16.pdf

  5. My own lists are mundane. But I enjoy characters’ lists that showoff their personality. In my middle grade novel, my 11-year-old main character, Gwen, is a list-maker. These became a place for my illustrator to let loose and reveal even more about Gwen.

  6. Love this, Laura! Yes, I’ve used lists in fiction. In SCATHED, Sage (a sleuthing crime writer) is profiling the serial killer through handwriting analyses and lists the traits she’s discovered by decoding the riddles left at each crime scene. It was an effective (and easy) way for me to show how she came to her conclusions. Fun, too!

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