Sunday, November 25, 2012

Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists

I am fascinated with lists. I collect books such as The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap and Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations by Liza Kirwin. I keep endless lists, I’ve written about making lists, and I’ve written fiction based on lists. And recently, I had the pleasure of reading through short story submissions and selecting stories for an anthology, Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists, due out from Main Street Rag this month.


In the spirit of crafting fiction from lists, I offer the following writing exercise, which I’ve used in creative writing classes.

Starting with Lists: A Fiction Writing Exercise

“Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” 1844

“Fictional prose is wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourse—letters, diaries, depositions, even lists—and adapting them to its own purposes.”
—David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 1992

1. Think about different types of lists that can be used to frame a story. For example:
  • A specific list or catalogue (types of birds, favorite superheroes, foods I won’t eat, places I’ve been, things I’ve lost, etc.)
  • Facebook status updates, tweets, or text messages
  • A “to do” list, a “how to” list, a shopping list, or a packing list
  • A PowerPoint presentation (which often includes bulleted lists)
  • Other brief texts, such as timelines, advertising copy, menus, inventories, itineraries, recipes, rules and regulations, etc.
2. Pick one of the forms that you’re comfortable using. Think about what kind of character would use the form you’ve selected. For example, an avid birdwatcher may very well make a list of birds, but an elderly woman who has never used a computer is not going to describe her day in a series of tweets. In other words, make sure the chosen form fits with the story and characters and that the storytelling impulse lies in the form. Don’t force it.

3. Once you have your form and protagonist in mind, make a list of a dozen or so items—e.g., a dozen Facebook status updates, a dozen things to do, a dozen instructions, a dozen items to buy, a dozen food items on a menu, a dozen meetings on an itinerary, etc. Be sure to leave space between the items to insert additional writing later.

4. Now read through your items and see what kind of a story they are beginning to tell. Rearrange them if necessary. How does your protagonist get from the first item to the second? From the second to the third? What happens in the interim? Begin to fill in the gaps between the items with narrative. Have your character explain her list, moving the story from one item to the next.

5. When you’re finished, read through what you’ve written. Does it look like the rough draft of a story? If not, what’s missing? Is there more to tell? Consider the following three outcomes:
  • Are the items in your original list still serving an important purpose in the story? What would happen if you took them out and left only the narrative that you inserted? You might find that your original list is only serving as scaffolding, and once you build the story around it, you can dismantle it.
  • Or what would happen if you added more items to your list? What would happen if you added more narrative? Can you find a balance between the number of items and the amount of narrative that makes the story seem complete? Are the lists and the narrative related to one another and serving to enhance one another?
  • A third possibility is you might discover that the narrative does not, in fact, serve a useful function in the story. It might have allowed you to learn more about your character and his circumstances, but in the end, you might find that you want to tell the entire story in list form. Just make sure that your chosen form is able to adequately tell the full story. Can your lists evolve or change sufficiently to reflect your character’s growth over the course of the story?