Friday, August 6, 2010

Busted!—Novelists caught using lists effectively

Among the advice hammered into me from working at a newspaper for nineteen years:
1) Don’t use more than five sentences in a paragraph
2) Don’t worry about “flow”
3) Don’t open with a question
4) Don’t open with a list.


Granted, newspaper journalism is not the same as other forms of writing. But even in fiction I can see my editor’s point about #4. Opening with one strong image invites the reader into the dark house of story by switching on an entry light; opening with a list is more like assaulting the poor guest with multiple floodlamps. Instead of orienting your reader, you assault him with a bevy of images he doesn’t know how to sort out.

But you can do anything if you do it well, right? And some authors do use lists to great advantage. Let’s take a look at two successful examples.

In Elizabeth Joy Arnold’s Promise the Moon, she looks at the healing of a family after a young soldier’s post-war suicide through alternating points of view. After a one-page introduction from the soldier's wife, we switch to the perspective of his daughter, Anna. Her POV opens with this list:
My dad was a hero soldier. I looked up hero in my dictionary, and this is what it said:
1) A person who is admired for great courage, noble character, and good deeds.
2) A sandwich, usually made with crusty bread, a.k.a. submarine, hoagie.
3) An illustrious warrior.
My dad was the number one and number three kinds of hero both. A double hero.

Although Anna didn’t write this list, the addition of her point of view allows it to inform characterization. We witness Anna’s innocence as she tries to sort through a monumentally complex subject, and her actions here reveal her story goal: to learn more about her father. This list is also a promise that this book will balance its sobering subject matter with a bit of humor.

In a bold move, Colum McCann opens Dancer, his novelization of Rudolph Nureyev’s life, with a list that is one-and-a-half pages long—as if to say “if you’re going to break a rule, break it big.” Reproducing the whole thing here would be outside the bounds of fair use, but here are a few of my favorites (omissions noted with ellipses).

Paris, 1961
What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:

ten one-hundred-franc bills held together with an elastic band;
a packet of Russian tea;

so many flowers that a stagehand, Henri Long, who swept up the petals after the show, had the idea of creating a potpourri, which he sold, on subsequent evenings, to fans at the stage door;
a mink coat that sailed through the air on the twelfth night, causing the patrons in the front rows to think for a moment that some flying animal was above them;
eighteen pairs of women’s underwear…
a headshot of Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut, with a message at the bottom reading Soar, Rudi, Soar!

a series of paper bombs filled with pepper;

broken glass thrown by Communist protesters, stopping the show for twenty minutes while the shards were swept up, and provoking such a fury that an emergency meeting of the Parisian Party branch was held because of the negative publicity caused;
death threats;
hotel keys;
love letters;
and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.
We are being offered a tale of passion and international politics, anger and humor, adoration and inspiration, entrepreneurship and intrigue. Rather than hint at characterization, this list builds an entire zeitgeist by allowing us to see this protagonist as a phenomenon. What’s missing is Nureyev himself—suggesting the author’s motivation to write this book.

But perhaps this list’s most powerful result is to convince the reader that anyone who incites such strong and diverse reactions among so many is well worth reading about.

Has anyone else noted an effective use of lists in fiction, or are you using this strategy yourself?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes, in a handy list: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted—An author caught doing some thing right."

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  1. What a novel (no pun intended) post, Kathryn! I've never used a list anywhere in a story, but I'm intrigued by the possibilities IF it is used effectively (as in your excellent examples).

    Many rules can be broken in good writing when the author knows what he/she is doing and the rest of the work reflects the understanding and application of those rules.

    Terrific post!

  2. Excellent post Kathryn! I haven't used this device as yet but it certainly has merit.

  3. I can't remember doing a list in a manuscript. I think it would have to be handled in a way that didn't draw the reader from the fictional world.


  4. I don't think I've come across lists used in a fiction book yet. It's certainly an interesting idea, though. I don't know that I'd use it myself.

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  5. I haven't done a list exactly the same way asyour example - with numbers. But I did what is called a sequence of shots in film:

    Franco and the boy turns.
    A glint of metal in the moonlight.
    John pushes her away.
    A flash of gunfire...

    It goes on from there in the same style. This is italicized as it is what the central character is recalling about the night her partner was killed and she shot a young black boy.

    I like the idea of using something different like this when so much about the character can be revealed via what they think and even the order of the thoughts.
    He pulls a gun.
    Gunshots reverberate

  6. Kathryn,
    Great post - you've added two books to my TBR pile.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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