Constraint Breeds Creativity

Imagine that someone has put you into a cardboard box, and then told you to get yourself out of it. If the top of the box is open, how do you get out? Easy. You stand up and climb out. 

But what if the box is duct-taped shut, and you’re literally boxed in on all sides? How do you get out? Maybe you punch your way out. Or maybe you use the nail clippers in your pocket to somehow carve a hole in the side. Perhaps you phone a friend for help, or maybe you try to bribe your captor into letting you free. The possibilities are endless, and the story of getting out of that box becomes much more interesting.

The same concept applies to writing, or really to any exercise of creativity. I have noticed that writers sometimes get “writer’s block” because there are so many possible things that could happen next in the story. This is also when it’s easiest to fall into overused tropes or cliches. When we don’t have limitations, we don’t work to come up with that clever twist. (This is a concept that is discussed occasionally in Writing Excuses. I have tried to find which episode discusses it the most, but for the life of me, I can’t find it anywhere. If I stumble across it again, I’ll link to it.)

So how do you put constraints on yourself in your writing? One way is to build limitations into your world, magic systems, or characters. 

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

For example, in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, the magic system is practically a science, decked out with laws and rules that users must abide by. The results are a lot more interesting than if the characters could just say a magic word and make something happen. The reader follows the main character, Kvothe, as he learns the “law of sympathy,” which states that “the more similar two objects are, the greater the sympathetic link.” Throughout the book, he has to work around this law. He can’t just do whatever he wants. I was frequently impressed with how he comes up with solutions to his problems.

Doctor Strange, 2016 Film

The same goes for characters. Consider Dr. Strange. At the beginning of his story (I’m talking about the 2016 Marvel film), his hands are severely damaged. He then gets involved in a magic system that involves the use of his hands (or so he thinks). At first he believes that he will be inhibited from using the magic due to his injury. It turns out that the limitation isn’t so much in the magic system as it is in his own mindset, and in believing that the damage to his hands will stop him from achieving his goals. He is then forced to find a way to overcome this limitation.

I have even found this concept of constriction to be useful in how I approach writing generally. I think everyone knows what it’s like to feel as though you never have time to write. But when you’re finally faced with a Saturday full of free time, it’s suddenly impossible to string two words together. In my own experience, the amount of free time I have has very little to do with how much writing I actually get done. When my writing time is limited to my thirty-minute bus commute to and from work, I find myself forced to focus. When I have all day to work on a writing project, I tend to spend the time on Pinterest.

Limitations are the framework within which we write our stories. They are guiding lines that we can hold to in constructing our stories and making them more interesting. What limitations do you put on yourself as a writer or on your story to make it more interesting?

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