Author Archives: Caitlin

The Writer’s List of Lists

Lists are fantastic. They take big, messy complex groups of things and package them into neat little boxes with sub-boxes upon sub-boxes. Below are a few that I think writers should have for realism and for inspiration.

1. The List of things you Love in fiction. Anything and everything that makes you pick up a book in the library or finish a story at two in the morning. Write the perfect story for yourself, not for anyone else. You can only devote enough energy and creativity to a story to make it great if you entirely love it. My (shortened) list is as follows:

a. Emotionally tense dialog

b. Eccentric  characters

c. Bittersweet, haunting endings

d. Gorgeous, mysterious strangers

e. Outbreaks of deadly diseases

f. Romeo and Juliet subplots

2. The List of things you Hate in fiction. These are demons that you are to ban from the halls of your imagination. I know you probably already avoid them, but I’ve noticed a tendency for people to write what they think is “good for you” to read/write. Something akin to taking those awful fish oil vitamins. I suppose the logic is “if this book is really famous and well-read, then I should write like that, even if I hate the book” but I’m not entirely certain. For me the list would look something like:

a. Infodumps, particularly in science fiction or fantasy

b. Obvious deus ex machina

c. Anthropomorphism (unless really well-written)

d. Secondary characters that clearly exist to be a plot device and have no appeal of their own

e. Weak endings

f. Disgustingly wordy sentences with endless dependent phrases

3. The List of your favorite Scenes in fiction. After you’ve finished, analyze them for exactly what makes them so engaging, heart-wrenching or hilarious. (Is it word choice? Is it the events that lead up to the scene? The timing of the scene in the story? The unresolved ending that makes it stick in your head? The analysis could be a sub-list! Or several!) Then look for similarities between the scenes. My example:

a. The Doctor and Rose at Bad Wolf Bay

b. Harry in the Ministry of Magic at the end of Order of the Phoenix

c. The last conversation between Gale and Katniss in Mockingjay

d. The last three pages of Delirium

4. The List of your most dramatic or emotional experiences, whether positive or negative. Writing emotion is impossibly complex. These could become the basis for something you write—some of the best scenes I’ve ever written were transcriptions of scenes I’ve lived through.

5. The List of the things you want most strongly. This list is probably good for self-analysis or something along those lines. But it’s a brilliant characterization tool. You know all those wonderful charts that ask you a lot of pointless questions about your main characters? What’s her middle name, her favorite color, etc.? Well, this is like that, only deeper, and less tedious, and you’re starting with yourself. If someone asked me what I really wanted now, I’d probably say, “sushi, fried chicken and that polka-dot dress I can’t afford.” But if I really thought about it and was honest with myself, I’d get a list more like this:

a. To be loved

b. To be approved of

c. To be talented and successful

And so on. Motivation! The full, honest version of this list can explain pretty much any course of action. (With the obvious exception of such primal instincts as sushi and fried chicken.) And it can do the same for characters. A real life example is good because writers have this tendency to write down in the “motivation box” whatever will make the characters do what the plot needs them to do, and not what the characters would want if they were real people. And motivation is important. It drives the characters, and they drive the plot.

And the final list (which isn’t really a list and therefore isn’t on the official List of Lists), is the one of all the cool things you come up with or hear throughout your days. Carry a notebook everywhere, if you don’t already.

Of course, variations upon this framework are highly encouraged.

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