1. You need a clear plot with rising tension, like any other story.
2. The items need not be numbered, but they must clearly be a list. For example, they can be a series of scenes or events or lessons learned, a roster of ideas, a collection of objects, a schedule or agenda, or entries in a record-keeping system.
3. The title does not have to have an actual number in it, although often it does.
4. You must have enough items to tell a satisfying story, and each item on the list must be strong, not a filler to get enough items. Items can be lengthy or brief. With the right tweaks, the result can be flash fiction, a novel, or anything in between.
5. You can also insert a list into a non-list story as a way to enrich a narrative. For example, the narrator lists the steps that led to the loss of a job, and the story resumes with the new unemployed life.
6. The ending should re-emphasize the story, such as a list of things in a suitcase that become more frightening and the final one is a killer. Or a list of reasons to get married, and the last one or two show that the marriage would be a disaster or unbridled joy. Or a list of imaginary holidays that become significantly specific or broad at the end.
Now try your hand at writing your own list story. Here’s an exercise:
List 10 things that intrigue you or evoke a feeling, for example: a word, phrase, color, event, quote, situation, place, news, person, name, idea, dream, or day.
Arrange that list into a series that invokes a story.
If you can, rearrange the list into a different story.
Here are some ideas for stories, in addition to the ones included in the list of rules:
• A woman has been planning her husband’s funeral for years, each year with a different cause of death.
• A traveler remembers the best and/or worst places ever visited.
• A detective adds up the clues to solve a mystery.
• A series of gifts illuminates the relationship between two people.
• A teacher makes a list of reasons to kick out a student, and one or more reasons to keep the student in class – or vice versa.
• At a wake, friends devise lists of events involving the deceased, which reveal something surprising about that person and the way different friends saw the dearly beloved.
• An elderly man considers other ways his life could have turned out if he had made a series of different decisions.
• These 27 rules will guide you from birth to death and allow you to fulfill your secret destiny.
• This is the perfect escape plan, and it has 12 steps.
• A person facing a loss, which might not be death, anticipates the five stages of loss and grief: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance. However, what actually happens does not follow that anticipation or those stages.
• A woman lists what she will and will no longer do after she loses weight and becomes sexy and beautiful, and then she does/does not lose weight.
• This story lists and evaluates the rulers of an imaginary realm, recounting its rise and fall – and its surprising recovery and present glory.
This article and exercise was originally prepared for a meeting of the Madrid Writer’s Club.
— Sue Burke