Monday Motivation: A good list is worth a thousand words

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

The significant detail can usually nail a description, or pierce to the essence of a character.

Think of the sentence from a Guy de Maupassant story: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”

“That gentleman,” wrote Ford Maddox Ford, “is so sufficiently got in that you need know no more of him to understand how he will act.”

But from time to time stories demand more than just that one detail – they demand a list.

I am, as it happens, a great lover of lists. I’m in the company of many writers in this respect. A well-judged list can build… and build towards a cumulative effect that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I was struck, over this past week, by two pieces of writing in which the authors used the rhetorical power of lists to build a description of a landscape, on the one hand, and of an American president on the other.

Let’s take Vasily Grossman’s description of the evening Russian steppe in Stalingrad, first:

“The tired, indecisive creak of crickets, as if asking whether or not it is worth making sound of an evening; the calls of the grey steppe partridges just before dark; a distant squeak of wheels; the whispering of grass as it quietens down for the night, rocked by a cool breeze; the constant hurrying of field mice and ground squirrels; the scraping sound of beetles’ hard wings. And then, alongside these peaceful signs of the day’s retreating life: the brigand-like cries of owls; the somber hum of night hawk moths; the rustle of yellow-bellied sand boas; the sounds of predators emerging from burrows, holes and gullies, from crevices in the dry earth. And over the steppe rises the evening sky, and the earth is reflected in it; or maybe it is the sky that is reflected in the earth, or maybe earth and sky are two huge mirrors, each enriching the other with the miracle of the struggle between light and dark.”

This list of all the sensory impressions that the author – unashamedly omniscient in this passage – is receiving or imagining in those few minutes of dusk, is magisterial in its effect. It evokes the place so concretely that I feel that I’ve been given a glimpse of the real steppe, immersed in the magic of a world that Grossman himself clearly and dearly loves.

But it also heralds a larger change in the world as Hitler’s armies race towards Stalingrad. Day is turning to night. The partridges are taking shelter and the predators are emerging: the brigands, the ominously named night hawks, and predators of a variety of unnamed and therefore the more menacing species.

Grossman’s list becomes a metaphor for the eternal struggle between light and dark.

Nate White is a UK copywriter and blogger whose recent answer to an online question has gone viral. The question was: Why do some British people not like Donald Trump? White’s answer began with a list. I can do no better than cut straight to the chase:

“Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace…”

Of course you can’t define a person completely by what he’s not – but as this list shows,  piling one absent feature on another, you can get pretty close.

So when you’re next writing a description of a place or a character, bear in mind the power not only of the significant detail, but also of a list of details.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Explore, don’t expound

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  • Dr Alexander Moll Inc

    No arguments with that list, Richard.

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