LIST OPENINGS…how they can help your fiction and nonfiction

color power punch

          There is a power to momentum that is undeniable and unstoppable. Many writers have learned to benefit from the energy of a LIST early in a piece of creative fiction or nonfiction. Let me SHOW you what I mean . . .

Here’s a beginning paragraph from Gordon Grice’s “The Black Widow” in High Plains Literary Review:

I hunt black widow. When I find one, I capture it. I have found them in discarded wheels and tires and under railroad ties. I have found them in house foundations and cellars, in automotive shops and toolsheds, in water meters and rock gardens, against fences and in cinderblock walls. I have found them in a hospital and in the den of a rattlesnake, and once on the bottom of the chair I was sitting in.

          By my count, that’s, ummm, at least a Baker’s dozen (13!) places where he has found these dangerous creatures–and they all appear in the first paragraph of his nonfiction piece. Although they’re a rare sight for most people (and most of us would like to keep it that way), his list of where he has found them makes it seem as though they’re lurking everywhere, just waiting for an unsuspecting victim.

          Notice also the fluency he creates by pairing the places until he disrupts the flow and mentions the final (and scariest) one all by itself. An extremely effective technique. And just in case you’d like another example, take a peek at this part of the opening paragraph from Danielle Ofri’s “Living Will,” in The Missouri Review:

He had survived three heart attacks and seven strokes. One kidney had been removed. He suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure. He had emphysema, glaucoma, severe migraines, and arthritis. His medical history included pancreatitis, diverticulitis, pyelonephritis, sinusitis, cholelithiasis, tinnitus, and ankylosing spondylitis. They typed paper also mentioned gastroesophageal reflux, vertigo, and depression. I quickly glanced over to the man hooked up to the ventilator to verify that he was indeed alive.

          First, talk about instant pathos–we care, and we’d never wish this on our worst enemy. The PILE of diseases and disorders this man has had to deal with is just that–a mountain of challenges. The unfamiliar names scare us, and when they are heaped on top of one another in his medical charts, they seem like much more than any person could be expected to endure. And that’s JUST what the writer wants us to feel at that moment, considering the title of her article is “Living Will.” We can guess at the issues involved…and who could blame someone for refusing life-sustaining procedures when the person is enduring this kind of pain?

          Whether fear or sadness or any other type of emotion a writer might try to create early on, a list of specifics can help make that happen. Whether it’s a list of familiar places or unfamiliar diseases, the effect is much the same–before we finish the first paragraph, we’re feeling exactly the way the writer wants us to feel. Now that’s a power punch!

Try this:

Pick an emotion, any emotion. Now think of a list that can help create those feelings. Contents of someone’s bedroom? Someone’s purse? The trunk of someone’s car? The junkpile someone’s searching through to try and find something, anything of worth? Pick a few ideas and toy with them–you just might find the beginning to your next piece of writing!

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