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The Value of Lists


I use lists all the time. To do lists, partly for the immense satisfaction of crossing something out, grocery lists, and mental lists of what’s packed in the diaper bag, what’s in my bag before I step out the front door.

So why not use lists in your writing?

Paul Harding uses a list to great effect, creating tension and forward motion in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers.

“Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not: shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.”

Harding is doing a lot of things with this list. He’s creating open questions that make the reader want to keep turning the pages. “I wonder how he delivered the baby?... pulled the tooth? … fished the drowned child out of the creek.” He created tension that made me, the reader, want to find out more.

He’s also compressing time here, giving a sense of a character’s life. These events happened over a stretch of years, and yet, here they are in summary form and in the next pages, they will expand, like water being added to a sponge. He is doing a lot of work fleshing out Howard, making him vivid and real, especially with that small phrase that seems like an afterthought, “mostly not”: Howard is not a man driven by money. He will do these things because of his deep engagement with the world. It’s also worth noting this list is not about physical objects, but a list of events.

Rabih Alameddine in I, the Devine, uses a list to detail what happened to the narrator during a particular year.

“Nineteen-seventy-three was a strange year. I cut my hair short, which drove my stepmother crazy. The Lebanese army went nuts and started bombing the PLO, a harbinger of things to come. I left those wacky Carmelite nuns and entered an American-bankrolled school where I was the only girl in the whole class. I also met Fadi, who changed my life forever.”

Alameddine, too, creates open questions for the reader, who now wants to learn more about the narrator and this pivotal year. Look, too, at how much we learn about the narrator in such a short amount of space—she has a stepmother, she’s in some way affected by the Middle East conflict, and she met someone who changed her life. Finally, the entire paragraph seems to build to that last sentence, which carries so much weight—Faid changed the narrator’s life forever.

In my next novel The Translator, (to be published July 1, 2013), a list leads my central character, Hanne, into memory. She opens a box of her daughter’s things and finds:

“Other things—a rock that sparkles gold, Fool’s Gold, your blue ribbons from swimming and tennis, your beginning French book, your handwriting, careful, precise, handwriting of a six-year-old. You collected the world in small objects.

"And a letter to your classmates, asking them in your nine-year-old hand writing to contribute money for the animal shelter. All those dogs and cats without homes. The animals need good food, you pleaded with your peers. Another for your fundraising efforts for the soup kitchen. When you were twelve, you volunteered there on Saturdays and served a hot meal to the homeless. I didn’t approve, too worried about all those loose ends men. People wanted to be near you. You drew them toward you, somehow. At least once a month you came home without something, a coat, a scarf, gloves, socks, you gave these things away.”

With this list of things in a box, I’m characterizing the daughter, and also the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. Hanne did not want her daughter at the soup kitchen, but she went, regardless.

Let your character make a list of things, of events, of things that need to get done, (what’s in your character’s bag? Closet? What year stands out? What are the pivotal events of that year?) and you can generate more characterization and more forward motion in your story.