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A Novel Use of Lists

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Among the advice indelibly ingrained in me from working at a newspaper for many years:

  1. Don’t use more than five sentences in a paragraph.
  2. Don’t worry about “flow;” you’ll build your own meaning.
  3. Don’t open with a question.
  4. Don’t open with a list.


Opening with one strong image invites the reader into the dark house of story by switching on a light in the entryway; opening with a list is more like assaulting the hapless guest with multiple floodlights. Instead of gaining the orientation he seeks, the reader is overwhelmed with images you’ve given him no context for sorting.

Some authors use lists to great advantage, however—and later, you’ll see some right in the novel’s opening. Let’s look at some examples.

Elizabeth Joy Arnold’s Promise the Moon explores a family’s healing after the young father’s post-Gulf War suicide. After a one-page introduction from the man’s wife, Arnold switches to the perspective of the young daughter, Anna. The list is found as this POV opens:

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.

Seeking a dictionary definition not only shows Anna’s innocence as she tries to sort through a monumentally complex subject, it reveals her story goal: she wants to know her father. Other lists this character offers throughout the story, such as the top three awkward things people said to her after her father’s death, show that this is how she processes the chaos in her life. The humor promises that this book will encompass the full range of human emotions.

In my novel The Far End of Happy, an accumulation of lists suggests the burden my protagonist suffers while dealing with her husband’s downhill slide toward suicide. These include a fix-it list for the aging farm, a bulleted list of emotions she off-loads into her journal, mental health resources of which her husband would never take advantage, a list of creditors and amounts owed, and a list of reporters wanting to talk to her during the standoff.


Opening with a list

In a bold move, Colum McCann opens his novelization of dancer Rudolph Nureyev’s life, Dancer, with a list that is one-and-a-half pages long. I can almost hear my newspaper editor saying, “If you’re going to break a rule, break it big.” Here are a few of my favorites.

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 phenomenon that had never been seen in the theater before, most of them discreetly wrapped in ribbons, but at least two pairs that had been whipped off in a frenzy…;

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…;

death threats;

hotel keys;

and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

This list brilliantly foreshadows the story to come. We will be offered a tale of international politics and passion, anger and humor, inspiration and judgment. McCann builds an entire zeitgeist by allowing us to see this protagonist as a phenomenon. What’s missing is Nureyev himself, suggesting the author’s need to write this book. But perhaps the 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.

This next list, although in paragraph form, employs deep point-of-view to create an affecting opening:

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.

That’s the opening paragraph of Lori Lansen’s The Girls, written from the dual perspectives of conjoined twins.

While typically considered a way of organizing nonfiction material, these examples show how a list can spotlight important concepts in fiction. Might this be a technique you could use in your work-in-progress?

Especially for the second two examples, placed right at the story opening: did that work for you? Did you feel overwhelmed by the information presented, or did it draw you into the story? Can you see how lists might work as a spotlighting technique? Do you recall stories that have made effective use of lists that you could share?

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.