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Writing a descriptive list

Writing descriptive lists, even of just two items, is a nice trick writers have up their collective sleeve: two or three seperate items can easily add up to be more than the whole, making for an opportunity to ply the ol’ writing skill. Let’s check out an example of what I’m talking about. Elmore Leonard is very fond of one of his characters’ description of the romance novels that she used to write: they were “full of rape and adverbs.” Here, Elmore uses two items to aptly sum up romance novels. The first item, rape, is a shocking one.

1. Shock value is appreciated.

The second item, however, is far less interesting:

2. Vary the items as wildly as possible.

This ties in with the Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking rule: end the list with a weaker item. The shocking ones are shocking in their own right, and will therefore be fine alone, but when the final, impactful ending item isn’t as shocking as expected, it becomes shocking in its mundanity.

3. Signify issues larger than the item itself.

This is by far the toughest lesson to apply. Elmore’s example serves to highlight adverbs in relation to romance writing. Why? Because Elmore considers adverbs a sign of crass writing, and is heavily implying that romance novels on the whole are poorly written. He explains here:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Just by mentioning adverbs, Elmore has turned his quick, two-item list into a critique of a genre. It’s a clever use of itemized lists in literature, and an example we can all learn from.

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