When it comes to descriptive writing, I'm a sucker for a good list--any playful series of details that can stir a subject to life through sheer excess and exuberance. Like Jean Shepherd's description of a boy dressed to confront a northern Indiana winter:
Preparing to go to school was about like getting ready for extended Deep-Sea Diving. Longjohns, corduroy knickers, checkered flannel Lumberjack shirt, four sweaters, fleece-lined leatherette sheepskin, helmet, goggles, mittens with leatherette gauntlets and a large red star with an Indian Chief's face in the middle, three pairs of sox, high-tops, overshoes, and a sixteen-foot scarf wound spirally from left to right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing told you that a kid was in the neighborhood.
("Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid")
And when that same boy visits a department store Toyland, Shepherd shows how a good list can bring a scene to life with sounds as well as sights and smells:
Over the serpentine line roared a great sea of sound: tinkling bells, recorded carols, the hum and clatter of electric trains, whistles tooting, mechanical cows mooing, cash registers dinging, and from far off in the faint distance the "Ho-ho-ho-ing" of jolly old Saint Nick.
(If these sight and sound images strike you as familiar, consider this: the boy's name is Ralphie, and back in 1983 Shepherd's vivid descriptions--from the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash--were translated into the cinematic images of A Christmas Story.)
Though lists may appear to be rather artless, haphazard affairs, Robert Belknap points out that they are often "deliberate structures, built with care and craft." In his book The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing (Yale University Press, 2004), Belknap shows how writers have relied on lists throughout literary history: the catalog of ships in Homer's Iliad, the record of "schoolboy treasures" in Tom Sawyer's pockets, the inventory of America in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Lists have a role to play in essays and compositions as well--especially those that describe people or places or things. See, for instance, how Alfred Kazin relied on lists to describe the kitchen of his childhood.
Drawing up lists can help us generate materials for a composition (see Discovery Strategy: Probing Your Topic). Lists can also serve as a way to arrange and connect ideas and images, as shown in our Model Place Descriptions. According to Belknap, lists may "compile a history, gather evidence, order and organize phenomena, present an agenda of apparent formlessness, and express a multiplicity of voices and experiences."
Like any rhetorical device, list structures can be overworked. Too many of them will soon exhaust a reader's patience. But used selectively and structured thoughtfully, lists can be downright fun--even more fun than an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!
And with a list, you won't shoot your eye out, kid.
More About Lists:
- Writing With Lists
- William H. Gass on Writing With Lists
- Ian Frazier's List of Reasons in Great Plains
- Lists and Anaphora in Nikki Giovanni's "View of Home"
Image: Peter Billingsley as Ralphie in A Christmas Story, © Warner Brothers, 1984.