“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
We use lists all the time–to-do lists, shopping lists, bucket lists, etc. But what about lists as a set of possibilities for your story?
When I’m feeling stuck on a certain situation or character in my story, I oftentimes just start rapid-fire listing all the possibilities I can come up with. All of them–good and bad, serious and silly–and seeing which strikes me the most.
For example, if I’ve created an event in a story, but I’m still not sure who is responsible for it, I might start by listing potential suspects. (I’m notorious for coming up with problems before I assign people to cause them.) Or, in reverse, I have this cool antagonist group, but I’m not sure what to do with them, I might start listing ideas about them–their wants, their motivations, their fears….
Perhaps I’ll do a list for my protagonist, too. If I later compare those lists, I might find intersecting points in which their interests cross or conflict, which will be the impetus for a story to happen. This might even happen between two protagonists and two antagonists, depending on the depth of your story’s characters.
Listing can also be used for plot points–simply writing out all the scene or moment ideas you have and figuring out how or if they fit into the overall story you want to tell. One exercise in the Donald Maass Breakout Novel series (which I highly recommend) has you listing out the stakes of a story, and then, when you think you’ve thought of all the ways the situation can get worse, to list out even more things. And when you think it can’t get any worse, think of even more things that will make it worse. It’s quite the exercise, and I’ve applied it to other parts of my storytelling as well.
There are a hundred ways you can use lists for your writing–but I think one of the most important things to remember is that you don’t have to keep anything on your list. It’s an exercise, not a contract set in stone. By using lists and whipping out ideas in short form as fast as you can come up with them, you’re able to exhaust your possibilities and find the ones that work best or are the most exciting among those that might be bland, predictable, or otherwise undesirable.
When you are listing, I suggest free-forming it. Don’t bother with what kind of numbering or lettering or which bullet-points you should use (unless that will help spark your creativity). Possibilities might be as serious as the death of a protagonist’s loved one to as whimsical as unicorn farts. All that matters is that you exhaust your ideas, and when you think you’re done, come up with even more. Anything. Everything.
Ideas are a dime a dozen and we’re under no obligation to use every idea that flits across our imagination (I suspect even the most prolific of storytellers would have trouble doing this). For all of the awesome ideas we have, we usually have had a thousand zip by. But sometimes all those extras come in as noise that block us from hearing another possibility (or they might even belong in a different story). Use your lists to get everything out–the good, the bad, the irrelevant–and then keep only the ideas that really sing for the story at hand.
And don’t censor yourself–you’re the only one who is ever going to see it, and sometimes our best ideas are the ones we’re afraid to write down. That might not be the case every time, but you’ll never know if you don’t try it, right?