Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Making a list, checking it twice

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Let’s make a list of things we like.
—Nicholas Meyer

With these eight words, director Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. The story of how he cobbled together elements of five different screenplay drafts to come up with the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in twelve days is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and I’ve already told it here, so I won’t repeat it again. What strikes me about this story today, though, is the fact that it began in the simplest way possible: with a list. In particular, it was a list of story elements and plot devices—Khan, the Genesis project, a certain character’s death scene—that were already there, but hadn’t been combined into a coherent shape. And the fact that the result paid off so handsomely is a lesson for all writers about the power of lists.

Because lists are incredibly useful. Most novels start as a list of some kind—of characters, of moments, of plot points—but it’s also smart to keep making lists as the project develops, especially when you’re stuck for inspiration. These can be lists of locations, of objects in a scene, of possible props, of the contents of someone’s pockets, or even of material you’ve written and discarded along the way, any one of which might solve a problem or spark an idea. Such lists are especially useful in writing comedy or action, in which the best material is organically generated by the natural aspects of a setting or situation. As Alfred Hitchcock says:

For example, Cary Grant in North by Northwest gets trapped in an auction room. He can’t get out because there are men in front of him or men behind him. The only way out is to do what you’d do in an auction room. Bid. He bid crazily and got himself thrown out. Similarly, when he was chased by a crop duster, he ran and hid in a cornfield. There was one thing that crop duster could do—dust some crops. That drove him out…I don’t believe in going into an unusual setting and not using it dramatically.

The legendary animator Shamus Culhane makes a similar point in Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

Ultimately, lists are useful because they remind you of what you already have. The process often resembles what David Mamet says about the slate piece, in bringing out the hidden information already inherent in the story. At other times, it’s more like figuring out how to use a standing set. While writing, I’m amused by how often a prop or location that I mentioned in passing early in a novel ends up playing an important role twenty chapters later. Similarly, the great silent comedians could walk onto a set and immediately start planning gags and bits of business, simply based on what was already lying around.

The trouble, of course, is that I don’t have a roomful of props to stare at. A novelist’s mind can resemble the storeroom at the end of Citizen Kane, a jumble of material acquired over a lifetime, none of which useful if we can’t remember what is there. A list is the first step toward making a catalog. It distills a mine of existing information into a form that you can process more easily, so you won’t be tempted, as many writers are, to fix plot problems with additional research. Nine times out of ten, when you have a problem to solve, the answer is probably already there, implicit in what you’ve already written or imagined. And all you need to get started is a list.

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