I’ve always made lists to help me write.

I keep lists of historical details for stories set in different eras, figures of speech I happen to like, and names for future characters.

I even have a list of great titles, although I haven’t used any of those yet. So if you need a good title, call me, I guess.

Along with these reference lists, I use lists to come up with writing ideas when I’m stuck.

I’m a writer in my day job, where no one has time for writer’s block. When I’m working on a story on my own time, I don’t have much patience with it, either.

I use lists to help me organize my thoughts quickly. Here’s how I do it — and how it can help you get unstuck, too.

The Fast List Method

Let’s say I have no idea why the bad guy in the story I’m writing is behaving like a bad guy. I know he wants to kill my main characters and maybe a few hundred of their closest friends, but it’s early on in the project.

I could stare at my computer screen repeating “What is his motive? again and again, but I have little luck with this method.

If I look for inspiration online, I have a good chance of getting sidetracked and spending an hour reading about some topic that catches my interest, but doesn’t pertain to my writing project at all. Research is always dangerous for me, because I’m curious about pretty much everything.

That’s where my list method comes in. I write my question at the top of a piece of paper, like this:

Hey Bryn, why does your villain want to kill all those people?

Then I number the page — usually 1 through 20 or 1 through 25.

Now I write possible answers to my writing question — as quickly as I can.

Naturally, I think of clichéd or downright stupid answers. I write them down anyway.

The beginning of the list might look like this:

  1. Uh, he wants to take over the world? To be powerful? Or something?
  2. He was just born evil. Yeah. That’s it. Ooooh, evil.
  3. They all made fun of his favorite T-shirt.
  4. He’s delusional and believes he’s a character in a violent video game, and that someone gets points for every person he kills.
  5. He’s a political extremist and a terrorist.

By the time I’ve filled out my list, I have plenty of terrible ideas. But I usually end up with at least one idea that works.

Sometimes I don’t even finish the list, because around number 16 or 17, I land on an idea that makes sense for my story.

You can use this method for just about any sticky problem you run into in your story. How does the prisoner escape the heavily guarded prison? What makes the spy turn traitor? Why doesn’t the hero just tell the heroine the truth, other than the fact that you’ve based the whole story on a misunderstanding?

Remember, if you jot down some stupid answers, you’re using the method correctly. Sometimes you’ve got to get the dumb ideas out of the way to get to the good ones!

Using the Fast List Method for outlining and idea generation

Although I used an example for writing fiction above, the Fast List Method also works for nonfiction and other types of writing.

If I’m writing an article or a paper, I prefer to start with an outline. The problem is, I’m not that great at outlining! In my brain, there are so many little things I could include, and things get confusing and complicated quickly.

Here’s where I make a big list to get all of those things out on paper, generally titled something like:

25 Things That Could Go Into This Piece

Once I have this list on paper, I go through and circle three to five of the most important things to include in the piece.

These are usually easy to put in order. I find that some of the other things on the list can support these important points. And voilà, I have an outline! I discard items that don’t fit in anywhere.

The Fast List Method also helps me come up with ideas at my job at Hallmark Cards. There, the question at the top of the page might be:

OK Bryn, what are some things a grandma might want to say to her granddaughter?

Or even simpler:

20 ideas for Hallmark website articles. Go!

No matter what task I use the Fast List Method for, allowing myself to write down a long list of ideas — no matter how good or bad — can help me work toward a solution.

Do you ever use lists to help you write? Do you have other ways of breaking through writer’s block?