List Stories: How they work, what they offer

Tiny handwritten notes listing very general and largely illegible types of lists

This post is about short stories written as/around lists. It is based on notes from my short-story reading posts. (For background on the three-mood story structure, see Story Shapes — Three Mood Stories.)

Outline of this post (it should link to the relevant section):

I hope to write a shorter version one day.


List-stories are stories written as or obviously structured around lists.

As a category, list-stories overlap with stories constructed of stacked vignettes and moment-in-time scenes. But in a list story, the individual sections are not limited to contained moments — the entries in the list might be fairly discrete sub-stories, longish scenes, consecutive sections, brief descriptions, apparently unrelated observations, unexpected objects, etc.

But those segments are are arranged and presented as a list. (In a vignette story, the flow is often initially less obvious.) That list can be numbered (1, 2, 3) or titled (“the next step”) or strongly implied through a sustained numerical or value-based progression (e.g., ‘here are some things you need to know, starting with the most important’).

The segments or list items are, ultimately, connected. That connection might be obvious and logical to the extent that the list-labelling could be removed, and the flow of the story still be obvious. Or the impact of the steps, the way they come together to make a larger story, might take some time to emerge.


A list that functions as a short story, (as opposed to being written as another fictional styling), has a story shape running through or behind the list structure.

That seems obvious! But looking for that a as simple as a progression of three big moods has been very useful, for these reasons:

  • it helps reveal the little sub-structures that tie a list-story into a functioning story;
  • it unearths some useful features of lists for writing short stories; and
  • it offers a way to shape what might otherwise be an interesting fictional list (but not a story) into a story.

(you can skip this, but if I put it at the end of this post it will be lost forever)

  • Make a list of ten lists (Ten Lists, Seven Reasons The Curtains Are Blue, What I Did On My Holiday…).
  • Pick one, and jot some notes on how you could fill it out (fantastically, realistically, ironically).
  • Choose one or two elements from Some Things Lists Can Do (below). Consider how you could apply them to a list, to pull it towards a story-shape.
  • Choose or invent a three-mood progression, and see what happens as you pull the list into that story-shape.
  • Think of a story you are working on, or have read, or a broad idea for a story (or someone else’s). Now look at your list of ten lists. Pick one or two, and consider how they could shape or reshape that story.


Here are a few functions a list can perform in / add to a story. In all cases, the author can use what the list offers, or fight against it (equally fun).

  • Structure.
    • The mere existence of a list starts to create a shape, with progressions, limits, labels, and sub-structures.
    • Some types of lists come complete with their own structures (a list of stations in a circuit, for example, or steps in a set of instructions).
    • A skeleton to grow around. A central beam for the story to hang off. A river into (or from which) streams flow. Etc.
    • The progression of a list tends to create cumulative/additive impact.
    • The weight of the list itself can be something for a story to pull into or against.
    • There’s a strong implication that there will be a clear end. If the author delivers is a separate question, and the occasional list-story plays with this. Sometimes there is a sense of biding, or a held breath, or the promise of continuance (in cyclical stories), or a sense of the tyranny of structure cutting the story off in the moment before something pounces.
    • The structure of a list can also gather loose thoughts and observations into thematic piles, or tell the reader what patterns to look for in e.g. parallel lives.
  • Ligaments.
    • The list and its framing/phrasing automatically implies connection of its parts, reason for everything to be here, and, eventually, an explanation for how these disparate bits come together.
    • If a story already has its own clear structure, a superimposed list can highlight that (or pull against it).
    • A list can create a clear relationship (from the beginning, or in retrospect) between the parts and the whole.
    • A list can subtly knot pieces together, and spring the meaning on the reader — but it can also make the existence of that connection the explicit point of the story.
  • Pacing and length
    • A basic list suggests a simple pacing structure — methodical, or gradually accelerating/decelerating.
    • And lists can have their own sub-structures, little patterns each entry follows, or pretends it will follow. (“Item — check!” or “Occasion — outfit — shoes”).
    • This creates expectations (and can lull a reader into a sense of false — or true — security).
    • Once that pattern is established, an author can play with it — lengthening or abbreviating sections, breaking connections, distracting the reader from forward motion by referring to things back at the beginning, etc.
    • A list can be used to keep a short story short. If there are only seven items, or ten, or thirteen, then there’s some restraint on the uncontrolled outward growth of a story.
    • A list constructed of scenes or vignettes allows for dramatic compression and/or jumping of time. There’s no need to fill in the events between seeing “The 5 Mermaids I Have Glimpsed”, or explain how or why you got from one ocean to another, or to fill in the small talk between the courses of “Seven Sense-Memories From The Worst Meal I Ever Ate”.
  • Distance.
    • The nature of a list can tend to keep a reader at arm’s length from the action/emotion, or pull them in. (Compare a list of academic titles with a list of scars.)
    • This can also be used for misdirection.
    • The apparent surface objectivity of lists makes them useful for stories about generalities and types (and the individualities and peculiarities within them), and for moving between the objective and the personal/particular.
    • It is easy to use a lift to conceal or evade identifying characters (at least on the surface).
  • Certain story types
    • Lists do seem to be naturally useful for ritualistic/cylical/pre-ordained/imposed stories (see also Short Stories: Rites and Ritual and Structure).
    • Due to their advantages for pacing, list stories also appear to lend themselves to stories about and across time (or about someone taking time).
  • Metaphor and illustration/ornament
    • A list can be chosen for its literal function, or to work as a metaphor — game rules for something that’s deadly serious, for example.
    • Or the artificiality of the list can become ornamental or illustrative, letting headings be a loose thematic gathering, an apparent respite from the action (while weaving them into a tapestried backcloth, or a fabric of ghosts…)
  • Permission
    • A list permits stylings and content which an author might otherwise have to work hard to support and justify. Repetition is a common one, but individual list types might ease other types of occurrence, event, voice, or description.
  • Makes title selection easy
    • And creates expectations and anticipation.


Here are links to where you can read the stories I reference below.

If you click through to my original notes on these stories, there are often more detailed break-downs of the individual subsections.


“We Are Not Phoenixes”, by John Wiswell (see February 2022 notes), is a very restrained story — it skirts close to being simply a sequence of advice, a world-building artifact. (It isn’t set out as a list, but if you dropped in some dot points they wouldn’t look out of place.) But there’s just enough shape to the story (things to realise, fates to grieve) to make it story-shaped. That shape moves from a personable but objective paternal perspective, through involvement, to a deepening sympathy (all shown through the way the list is expressed).

“The Knowledge”, by Malcolm Devlin (see February 2022 notes) is more a story of stacked vignettes (see my Feb 2022 notes for more on that) than a list. But like “We Are Not Phoenixes”, it is a sequence of pieces of advice, starting with the apparently) straightforward and gaining depths. It also demonstrates the way a sequence of apparently discrete sections can gather momentum and impact from all that went before.

Also, although their shape and tone and conclusions differ, “The Knowledge” and “We Are Not Phoenixes”, they demonstrate some of the strengths of a list-of-advice-as-a-story. With their characters unnamed and largely opaque, the stories become driven by engines of alternating tips and reveals, exposing a world and a particular group’s place in it.


In “Thirteen of the Secrets in my Purse”, by Rachel Swirsky (see here in the February 2022 notes), a list of items gradually gathers meaning and excitement, swooping down to land as a tale-shaped piece.

Back in the original notes, I broke down the mood progressions of the 13 sub-sections. Doing that highlighted where the disparate items began to be linked by repetition (the middle third), and where actions started having consequences (the last third). These patterns are trends; the story is coy, switching back and forth and leaping around, but the overall effect is of a story shape.

(It also demonstrates how the end of a story needn’t be an answer — it could replace the existing questions with a better, bigger one. That’s a useful consideration for a list-story which could, of course, be a list of questions.)

Where Swirsky’s list gathers objects into a story, Tonya Liburd’s “10 Steps to a Whole New You” (see here in the March 2022 notes) separates a coherent story into a numbered list. The text flows in a linear, logical fashion. The numbered list points out and strengthens that structure. It also modulates the pacing, and adds a sense of cyclical or mythical or momumental weight. This is the way things go, a list like this can say — for good or ill, oppressively or surprisingly. And where, as with Liburd’s story, two characters are treading similar paths, the list organises and highlights those resonances.


Some formats (which authors borrow and riff on to structure their stories) come with their own built-in lists.

Sarah Turi Boshear’s “A Short Story in Seven Looks” (see here in the March 2022 notes) uses a sequence of looks from a fashion show to trace a career (and its consequences). This form has built-in coherence and a natural linkage/progression, giving it more external musculature than some other list stories. The use of a known list type (fashion show script) also creates space for the author to embellish the story using space that might otherwise have been devoted to building in story-structure.

Compare “Seven Looks”, for example, to Swirsky’s “13 of the Secrets in my Purse” (earlier in this post), which which would be only a list of objects without all the internal links and little emotional ramps the author builds in. Devlin’s “The Knowledge” uses its list of directions as misdirections, building a larger story behind them. Liburd’s list, while conferring many of the benefits of a list, is in fact drawn from the story itself: objectively, the list headings are closer to expository/descriptive chapter chapter titles.

It’s also worth comparing Boshear’s “A Short Story in Seven Looks” to Alexandra Seidel’s “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” (see here in the April 2022 notes).

Seidel’s list of paintings allows for a sequence of seven vignettes (painting + reaction) tied together by a final segment (consequences + painting). This is similar to the seven looks of Boshear’s fashion show. But where a fashion show has a definite ending (and we’re told the number of looks in the title), “The Art and Mystery” keeps its pacing a little more under wraps (suiting the mystery of this vs the vigour of “Seven Looks”).


Aimee Ogden’s “Dissent: A Five-Course Meal (With Suggested Pairings)” (see here in the May 2022 notes) is an example of a list (menu) that appears very remote from the subject under discussion (suppression and revolution). It is being used metaphorically, although not as heavy-handedly as you might expect. But there’s a cyclical time-boundedness to both structure and subject; a necessary progression and emotive tie.

Ogden also uses the menu structure to time-jump from scene to scene, sometimes overleaping years. The structural conceit (food + wine pairing x 5) isolates each moment as an experience, while also linking it to what went before (each course on a menu plays a particular role in the progression of a meal, after all). It also permits the author to set the sensory details apart, concentrating attention on a vivid moment, a sense-memory — that repetition might have become laboured without the list-structure to support it and give permission (and anticipation).


These stories also demonstrate how the use of a list can affect the immediacy of the story. In Boshear’s, you might be at least sitting in the audience at the fashion show, watching events unfold. In Seidel’s, the quasi-academic nature of a list of paintings creates a (nicely Gothic) sense of watching through a window, at a remove (until you realise there’s something out in the world too).

Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas’ “Still Life with Vial of Blood” (see here in the February notes) is also a sequence of descriptions of artworks, augmented by footnotes. In that case, the dawning alarm is much more interior: the footnotes provide commentary on the cooler descriptions, pulling you into the narrator’s own simultaneous reaction.

And while Ogden’s “Dissent…” could keep the reader at arm’s length through the very artificial conceit of the menu structure, the sensory details pull you right back in.


Alexis Gunderson’s “All the Open Highways” (see here in the March 2022 notes) is only very lightly a list story. But I’ve included it here because it is open about that central list structure. The opening line is “I was seventeen when I got my first ghost.” Which suggests more ghosts, and the story delivers.

What the faint list structure permits is a restrained variation and delicate repetition. This complements a progression from the cool politeness of youth to an openly empathetic age over the life of the main character. The list, as well as the passing of time, creates the pacing and spacing to allow that.


If you want to get even more to grips with how a list story works under the surface, I recommend breaking down each entry in the story’s list, too. I’ve outlined these for a number of the stories (click through the links to my original notes on them), and doing so shows how apparently disparate moments accumulate and build and land.


Below is a list of three-mood structures taken from my original notes on these stories. There is a great deal of variation, here, and no common pattern. But I can make out a general tendency (not unique to list stories at all, but very visible in them): it’s a progression from disconnectedness/disparateness into a whole; and/or from the mundane into something larger (or better, or more remarkable).

  • avuncular — involvement — conclusions
  • opening — performance — extrications
  • revelation of magic — revelation of fate — palliation
  • instructions — cautions — sympathy
  • curiosity — realisation — grief
  • (specific) mundane — edging into tales — confirmation of tales
  • model on X — understand via X — confirm is X
  • allusion — simile/metaphor — literal
  • tease tales — link/gather tales — knot tales together
  • fragments — links — purpose
  • inconveniences — interactions — instructions
  • odd — uncanny — fantastic
  • distraction — irritation — excitement
  • trash — autonomy — treasure
  • wondering — trying — finding out
  • discontent — playing with fire — catching light
  • willing temptation — willing seduction — willing destruction
  • failing powers — overpowered — powerful
  • offered — asking — getting
  • the promise — the rise — the breaking point
  • rags — riches — power
  • deal — steps — treacheries
  • supplication — maintenance — knives
  • promises — whirlwind — weapons
  • exhaustion — anxiety — triumph
  • unexpected — expected — seeking
  • dismissive — tolerant — sympathetic
  • youth — midlife — age
  • politeness — tolerance — generosity
  • ominous — sad — kindly
  • information — theories —revision
  • beauty — mystery — supernatural
  • skill — questions — evidence
  • pool — disturbance — ripples
  • window — something through — lingering
  • scholarly—surface—into world
  • hinted—emerging—always there
  • beauty — mystery — supernatural
  • skill — questions — evidence
  • pool — disturbance — ripples
  • window — something through — lingering
  • scholarly—surface—into world
  • hinted—emerging—always there
  • murmurs — escalation — patience
  • dread — fight — bide
  • treasure — (help) slip away — hold
  • prepare — follow-through — consequences
  • defend — rescue — wait

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2 thoughts on “List Stories: How they work, what they offer

  1. Pingback: January 2023 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: January 2023 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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