The Power of Lists

Kurt Cobain, Stanley Kubrick, F Scott Fitzgerald. Strange bedfellows, but one thing they all had in common was their love of writing lists.

I use lists to brainstorm ideas and dig into the story ideas. At first, the words feel disjointed, like fragments floating in space, but soon it is possible to find common links and interesting juxtapositions.

I have found that it works best if I do not overwrite. My lists are simple. I try not to overthink these thoughts or reflect on what they mean. I try to give myself some distance before I reread them. These are not the regular lists that remind me to buy the milk, but lists that help me focus on writing stories.

I divide lists into three categories: there are journal lists, lists for storytelling, and observational lists. So let’s go a bit meta, and write a few lists about the lists I like to write.

Here are some topics for journal writing lists.

  • Lists of obsessions.
  • Lists of hopes and dreams.
  • Lists of special objects in my life.
  • Lists of people I have met and why I find them interesting.
  • Lists of memorable events.
  • Lists of moments when I experience something for the first time, like listening to a song, meeting a friend, trying a new sport, or learning the truth about myself.
  • Lists of favourite films.
  • Lists of favourite books.
  • Lists of favourite music.
  • Lists of things I don’t understand.
  • Lists of my favourite memories.
  • Lists of my worst memories.
  • Lists of favourite places.
  • Lists of the objects in one of my favourite places.
  • Lists of my favourite objects and where and when I saw them.
  • Lists of the things I don’t want to happen (with this list, I like to turn it on its head and write a paragraph about these things happening.)

And here are some to do with observation.

When I go somewhere, I like to pay attention to the world and make lists of:

  • The things and people I see during the day or over a week.
  • Interesting words.
  • Names, places and objects that are new to me.
  • Things I did.
  • Places I visited.
  • Iconic objects.
  • Things I know or, better still, wish to know.
  • Jobs I’ve never done but would find interesting to do.
  • Subjects and topics that I find interesting.
  • Things that I want to do today and this week.

I use lists for brainstorming and planning stories.

  • Write a list of story titles.
  • Write lists of interesting characters’ names.
  • Write a list of strange things that I heard or saw.
  • Write a list of today’s stories as reported in the news.
  • Write a list of interesting scenes.
  • Write a list of the story questions that a story idea or a story title prompts you to think.

Then here are some lists for developing characters.

  • Write a list of the character’s family and friends.
  • Write a list of the character’s favourite memories.
  • Write a list of extreme characters my main character has yet to meet.
  • Write a list of the people, places and things that the character loves.
  • Write a list of the people, places and things that the character hates.
  • Write a list of the things the character regrets he did.
  • Write a list of things the character doesn’t want to happen to him or his family.
  • Write a list of objects as seen in the character’s favourite room.
  • Write a to-do list for the character. This is what he has to do regardless of what the story requires him to do, as life always gets in the way of a good story.

Then, here are a few lists for writing scenes.

  • Write a list of the scenes you must write for the story.
  • Write a list of the story questions prompted by the story.
  • Write a list of the spaces and places where the story takes place.

These are just a few of the lists that I write. I find it a dynamic way of working, without it feeling like work. I hope you do too.

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