Writers sometimes use lists to bring a person or place to life through a sheer abundance of detail. When they work, lists are a groundswell of images that lift and transport the reader. Below is an example from an essay in John Updike’s memoir, SELF CONSCIOUSNESS (1989):
A few housefronts farther on, what had been Henry's Variety Store in the 1940s was still a variety store, with the same narrow flight of cement steps going up to the door beside a big display window. Did children still marvel within as the holidays wheeled past in a slow pinwheel galaxy of altering candies, cards and artifacts, of back-to-school tablets, footballs, Halloween masks, pumpkins, turkeys, pine trees, tinsel, wrappings reindeer, Santas, and stars, and then the noisemakers and conical hats of New Year's celebration, and Valentines and cherries as the days of short February brightened, and then shamrocks, painted eggs, baseballs, flags and firecrackers?
Clearly, Updike had reasons for using a list here. A variety store is jam packed with new sale items that present exciting choices. A list is appropriate here because the store is the sum total of its many contents. Updike uses his list to connote, not only a multiplicity of items, but also to give the reader a sense of time. In a year, the merchandise changes from footballs to firecrackers and this, one guesses, has been the cycle for more than forty years.
Notice also that Updike does not substitute the list for a description of the store. He describes Henry’s display window and concrete steps.
Lists are great when there is a good reason to use them. But lists can also be a lazy approach to writing: The room was large, painted green, well-lit, carpeted and furnished in antiques (carrots, celery, eggs, milk, cheese…). These may be the attributes of a room you are writing about, but they don’t add up to anything. The reader doesn’t see this room. (We’re sitting in it as we write this, and we don’t see it in that list.)
One thing you can do with your list is sprinkle it in the action of your story. When we used the list above in a made-up story, we found we also wanted to add detail:
The key was on the Queen Anne dresser. All Mabel had to do was get to it across the thickly carpeted floor in broad daylight. Standing in the doorway, she took a deep breath. Would he hear her down in his study? It was a large room and seemed gargantuan with the task ahead. She would be completely exposed as she walked in front of the big bay windows, not only from the inside of the house, but to anyone walking by on the sidewalk outside. She would be caught, like a fly against the green William Morris wallpaper.
If you find that you are using lists often as a way to describe something or someone, think about why you are doing it. Ask yourself how the list, as a technique, enhances the story and how you might say the same thing in a different way.
Lists should be used sparingly.