Limitations and creativity


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Thread: Limitations and creativity

  1. #1

    Limitations and creativity

    I believe, and I am not alone in this, that limitations can be great tools to unleash your creativity. My argument here, is that when we allow ourselves too much liberty in our art, it becomes very hard to begin writing. For me, the hardest question to answer when I first start a new project is: what do I write?

    This is because my mind wanders off to all sorts of genres, styles, character arcs etc..., and there are hundreds if not thousands of these. Personally, I need very strict limitations in order to start writing. In my view, even arbitrary limitations (for example: the story must not have more than two characters) are better than no limitations.

    This view of art was first presented to me through the Dogme 95 film movement, of which Lars von Trier was a proponent. Some of the rules of Dogme 95 films were the following:

    1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

    2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)

    3.The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.

    4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)

    The most obvious example of a limitation, is of course a genre convention. If you are writing a murder mystery, the story must be about a murder and the mystery surrounding it.

    Another common type of limitation, is the structural limiration often found in poetry. Once the poet decides on a particular metre, they tend to stick to it, only breaking that rule when it is completely justified.

    Some limits I have decided to put on myself for my next book are the following:

    1. All descriptions of objects must be presented through the perspective and opinion of the POV character, and all description must hold some relevance to the plot or character development.

    2. Every scene must advance the plot or develop character. It always does so through conflict.

    3. No dialogue can be purely expositional. There must be no dialogue where character A tells character B something they both know.

    4. The entirety of the novel must take place within three days.

    5. No two characters hold the same viewpoints on the main problem of the story.

    6. The story must never deviate from the main premise. Subplots are only there as a tool to provide an alternative view of the premise.

    7. Backstory is never told, only implied. Have faith that the reader will pick up on your clues and figure out the backstory for themselves.

    Those are my limits for this particular book. I actually want even more, and I will keep adding to this list.

    Do you ever place strict limitations on your stories? Any arbitrary limitation?
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  2. #2
    I am a rebel. What happens when I write usually follows a very rough outline with a few scenes and characters ready made. The rest is a journey I look forward to.

  3. #3
    How do things like whether or not the movie is handheld or in color limit writing ability though?

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by ironpony View Post
    How do things like whether or not the movie is handheld or in color limit writing ability though?
    I was using that as an example of how one could use limitations in art. I could have also used examples from the world of painting and drawing (for example, painting using no more than three colors). Of course, a writer would impose other limitations upon themselves that are unique to writing. One example of a limitation in writing is flash fiction, to have a complete story in about 800 words.
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  5. #5
    I don't have 'rules' that I conceive of on a piece-by-piece basis and not sure what the purpose of that is. Is a writing rule that is true not true for ALL your books, not just this one? Why does this need revised from project to project?

    Most of your rules seem pretty sound to me, though. Other than this one:

    Quote Originally Posted by AdrianBraysy View Post
    4. The entirety of the novel must take place within three days.
    Not sure if I'm misunderstanding or what. Do you mean the entirety of the novel should be written within three actual IRL days or do you mean the plot should only span a three day period in the context of time within the story itself? I think it's the latter. If so, why? Why does that need to be articulated via a rule? Is the three days vitally important? Or is it that you think three days is the optimal time-span for a plot? If so, that's obviously silly - plenty of great books span years and years and some cover a single day or less. Just not sure why that needs articulated. If your story spans three days you can't really accidentally make it a week, right?
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  6. #6
    Wɾˇʇˇ∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Interesting. I am fascinated by the notion of limits and parameters and often think people are more creative within them (hashtag unpopular opinions). I read some lipograms recently (pieces where a particular letter is left out) and the voice on them was quite unique. And I suppose art imposes these readily on its practitioners - by painting in, say, oils, you limit yourself to just that. Too much freedom risks turning everything to crap. And I feel this is a good point to segue into our very own restriction-based writing contest, Literary Maneuvers, in which entrants must write no more than 650 words based on a specific prompt and which of course closes later today teehee


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  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by bdcharles View Post
    Interesting. I am fascinated by the notion of limits and parameters and often think people are more creative within them (hashtag unpopular opinions). I read some lipograms recently (pieces where a particular letter is left out) and the voice on them was quite unique. And I suppose art imposes these readily on its practitioners - by painting in, say, oils, you limit yourself to just that. Too much freedom risks turning everything to crap. And I feel this is a good point to segue into our very own restriction-based writing contest, Literary Maneuvers, in which entrants must write no more than 650 words based on a specific prompt and which of course closes later today teehee
    Yes! This is exactly what I mean. Especially for me as a pantser, I need very strict limitations in order for my writing to be compelling. One if the biggest limitations, in my view, is the setting. Once we have built the world of our story, we pretty much have to stick with the rules of that world. Say your story is about politics. The setting you pick, will limit you. Politics in ancient Rome looked very different from Washington during the industrial revolution, and that looks different from the local politics of a small rural town. But by having such a strict setting, it actually liberates your creativity, almost like a writing prompt because you know where to focus.
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  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I don't have 'rules' that I conceive of on a piece-by-piece basis and not sure what the purpose of that is. Is a writing rule that is true not true for ALL your books, not just this one? Why does this need revised from project to project?

    Most of your rules seem pretty sound to me, though. Other than this one:



    Not sure if I'm misunderstanding or what. Do you mean the entirety of the novel should be written within three actual IRL days or do you mean the plot should only span a three day period in the context of time within the story itself? I think it's the latter. If so, why? Why does that need to be articulated via a rule? Is the three days vitally important? Or is it that you think three days is the optimal time-span for a plot? If so, that's obviously silly - plenty of great books span years and years and some cover a single day or less. Just not sure why that needs articulated. If your story spans three days you can't really accidentally make it a week, right?
    I guess my view of this is the following: Let's say you tell a writer to "Just come up with a story." This will often lead to the writer struggling to manifest a clear idea, unless they have one to begin with. Now, tell that same writer to "Write a story taking place within a 24 hour period, about a clown, using no more than two points of view. The story must take place on another planet and deal with the theme of isolation."

    Now, the writer has a much easier starting point. Why? Because they have strict parameters. Of course said rules don't have to apply to every story, only this story in particular. I think it would ve much easier for this writer to now come up with stuff.
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  9. #9
    Mentor Megan Pearson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AdrianBraysy View Post
    Do you ever place strict limitations on your stories? Any arbitrary limitation?
    Absolutely.

    In writing SF, I want to know how my world works before I implement it. I want to use time restraints to create tension and to funnel the action. Negatively said, I want to know technological restraints, character flaws, and consequences for mechanical or character failure to act that are believable within the world I create. These realities cast successes in brighter light.

    Likewise, positives include knowing what my characters and creations can do, so if I use XYZ in book three, I want to allude to it in book one. (Otherwise, jumping the reader with an easy plot fix is not only overly convenient, it's also disingenuous. Besides, easy plot fixes are shallow. They have to come naturally from within the story, where knowing structure & (cap)ability & limitation helps tremendously.) Sure, it's an ideal and it takes work (& doesn't always work!)--but it can be done.

    I suspect most people employ their own story-appropriate limitations subconsciously as they write.


    I liken my approach to an analogy of a painting. I use the same principles of positive & negative space, detail & obscurity, contrast & complement, embellishment & exaggeration & focus as I do in creating a watercolor.

    In doing so, I always paint a picture larger than the canvas can hold -- it's exactly the same for me in writing SF.
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