Working Within Constraints Fuels Writing Creativity
By Brad Windhauser
Some of the best writing for TV you will ever find comes from Seinfeld. Out of all the famous episodes, one of the best writing that demonstrates how to make your point without violating imposed constraints is “The Contest” episode. Given its time slot on network TV, the show had to find a way to adhere to the content guidelines—censors—of that era and still find a way to make its point and be funny. A tall order, and the humor in this episode is enhanced BECAUSE of how well they work within their constraints: the four principal characters enter a contest to see who can go the longest without masturbating. The longest wins. Masturbation is not mentioned once during the episode; however, it’s alluded to so well, the knowing (i.e. adult) audience gets it, making it a type of inside joke.
Had this show been on HBO, the writers could have said whatever they wanted and the humor would be lost. The audience would not, then, have been able to witness the tightrope the characters walk while talking about yet around this topic.
This is one of the benefits of working within constraints in any genre: it can push you to be more creative than you otherwise would be.
In writing fiction, where you submit will dictate constraints on your work. Some journals won’t publish stories about children or violence, for example. So how can you maintain—or even improve—the content without using what’s forbidden? Sure, you could just submit your work elsewhere, but if you like the journal, challenge yourself.
You might also impose limitations on yourself. Pretending that you can’t get away with some type of content, like being overly sexual or certain political statements, for example, you might consider the use of subtext: how can you conceal a deeper meaning that requires a close read? How can you lead the reader right to the ideas without making them obvious? Remember, not all readers like a “message” story: they feel like they are being preached to. Disguising the ideas softens this feeling for readers.
Working within these types of constraints have produced classic stories. Take Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which can be read a number of different, important ways. Had the author wrote with complete freedom and said what she had to say overtly, this would not have allowed for such a lasting story worthy of so much literary study. You may not think of an allegory as a tool that imposes constraints on the author but it does.
Other Tools Contain Constraints
Other tools you select will contain certain built in constraints. For example in the point of view you choose for your story. Let’s say you have a scene with two characters having a conversation. With an omniscient narrator, you can fill in whatever details you want, including the thoughts of both characters and how to read each person’s body language, etc. But let’s say you are using a limited third person or first person narrator. Everything in this scene will then be limited to a certain set of information or observations. This therefore limits how you include the necessary plot points and details in your story.
This creates more opportunities than you would think: you will be compelled to devise creative ways for one character to learn about what the other one thinks, especially if this information is crucial. We will learn what is said, what is not said, tone, body language, all filtered through the narrator, who can also fill in either back story and/or inference. This can be a thrill to read (if handled well). Without the constraints of a limited narrator, you could just provide the thoughts and move on—easy for you, easy for the reader. Again, the choice of the limited narrator compels the writer to devise creative ways for the information to surface in a story, ways unnecessary if the omniscient narrator just told the reader the info.
Constraints as an Editing Motivator
You might also have to deal with length, as some outlets will only run 3,000 word stories; others, 8,000. This will impact your story, but this can be a blessing. It’s a useful exercise to impose various length constraints on your work. Doing this will cause you to really evaluate what is necessary and what is extraneous (and can and/or should be cut).
If you have an 8,000 word story, chances are you can’t cut it to 3,000 and still accomplish your goals. But you might get it to 7,000 (or even 6,000). Forcing yourself into the length constraints therefore convinced you to edit more closely than you might have otherwise.
In the end, you should consider how various constraints can enhance your creativity. Not every constraint will work for each story, so learn your tools and judge what will bring out the best scenario for the story you are telling.