Limitations are an imagination’s best friend

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”

The above quote is by children’s author Roald Dahl, and while I don’t respect the man’s character for his ‘alleged’ anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny, the quote has always struck a real chord with me. I think the reason everyone chooses to be a writer, deep-down, is that feeling of absolute freedom. It’s a universal want too, every person I know who is more money orientated than I seeks the same feeling; to live a life they felt like they were promised by media and generations before, but were denied in their youth.

For a writer, artist or musician, the freedom to create whatever we want is, at heart, what we yearn for. There’s a piece inside of us that absolutely wants to create something wholly original, a piece of us that will last long after us, pure emotion thrown onto the page, critics be damned. If 99 out of 100 hate it, at least 1 person will resonate with it, surely?

Yet, that rarely works out for the creator. Films that have given one person complete creative control (à la Tommy Wiseau and The Room), often end up as a self-indulgent mess. We now live in a world where it’s easier than ever to publish you’re own books yourself, ignoring any chances of rejection and constructive criticism. While there are hundreds of examples of great books self-published, I am sure, the majority tend to be pure wish-fulfilment from people who have never truly learned how to write. Action fans love to write about action, and usually will forgo any scenes of development and substance in between. Some people just to take an idea inspired by something else and run with it, seeing where it go, ignoring any semblance of three-act-structures and character arcs.

Having said that, I am very happy we live in a time where there are so many people who want to and are able to create their only stories, but there are many who don’t see this as a craft to be trained at. Throwing all your creative energy at something seeking that same freedom is a great start to anyone’s journey becoming a writer, but we can do better. We can refine the ideas and even your structure of writing, potentially improving your work and increasing your accessibility to your audience.

In theory, anyway.

Writing without structure

Imagination is a precious commodity in our world of remakes and reboots, but by its own definition, in its raw and unrefined state, it has a state of unpredictability. Which is fantastic for your audience if you can pull it off, but by letting it flow without a sense of structure, it can be disorientating. You can come up with a hundred amazing ideas and grow attached to each of them, but how will they be linked in a coherent way?

As an exercise, writing in a constant state of flow is a great way to pour out pure creativity in a controlled space. Just pick an opening line, subject or genre, and just let loose on your paper. However, the main problem can be that, we as storytellers, are natural ramblers. It becomes so easy for us to get stuck on small details that seem important to us in the moment, but your readers can easily find that to be a slog to read. Rather than getting to the important set-pieces, conversations or decisions that make reading a joy, instead we can find ourselves painstakingly describing a room or developing side-characters that ultimately have no bearing on the story in the long run.

Of course, there are downsides to planning your story too much. It can also ultimately lack the heart that good writing so desperately needs, discarding the passion in favour of plot and movement. There are good and bad to each approach, as I have written about before. Good writing is of course about learning to find that elusive balance, and taking different aspects of different techniques and getting them to work for you as an individual.

So how can we take aspects of planning to optimise our stories to their full potential?

Short Stories

I have a friend who is quite a successful novelist, and we often talk about our writing, and I can tell you he absolutely hates that I spend a large majority of my time writing short stories. The biggest reason is a difference of perspective; I as a relatively new writer with no books under my belt, tell him that I need as much experience and learning as I can, and what better way to learn than by writing as many short stories as possible?

The benefits to this approach are numerous. First of all, if you look and analyse your work after creating, it can tell you everything you need to about who you are as a writer. How you work with pacing, dialogue and genre topics. How much of this can you cram into 4,000 words? How do you write in this condensed space? Do you still struggle with writer’s block even when it’s such a short amount of writing? How do you deal with that?

You might think it’s just for exercise purposes, and I would argue that is the greatest strength of short-stories, but it can go so much further if you allow it. A well developed idea can start in a short story, but the more you grow around it, the more you start to think about it, and suddenly you have enough material for a short book. Then perhaps another.

The greatest thing for new writers to learn, however, is to cut the bullshit and waffle. Putting a limitation on words is perfect for it. I found that when I first started writing, I really struggled with telling the audience far too much, right off the bat. I was so desperate to tell the backstory of this world I had created, and introduce too many characters too quickly. Short stories taught me to cut through the fluff, start at the most engaging point, and reveal the background and story as the story develops. Unnecessary characters get cut, all conversations that remain are only the important ones. These are lessons that we can pass on to much longer stories and books. If you find yourself getting stuck while writing your novel, find a way to move past it into something interesting and work backwards.

I love writing short-stories, because I can learn to condense an entire novel into four or five pages, easily consumed by the audience, and easily churned out by myself for practise, experimentation or to quickly express an idea I have been toying with. Of course, not all ways to develop your ideas are so practical, sometimes they are are little more cerebral.

Implementation

I’m always fascinated by video-games that implement mechanics into their very story. Of course, mechanics in games are a far cry from writing books, but there are lessons to be learned.

In Morrowind, your character happens to be a reincarnation of the Nerevarine, a god-like hero, and it is heavily implied they utilise the power of CHIM, which allows them to avoid death by existing within several parallel universes simultaneously and deciding the outcome based on those existences.

In Bioshock, after your character is killed, they will resurrect in one of numerous Vita-chambers dotted around the city, however the reason that your enemies will not resurrect, is that the Vita-chambers were designed to only work for Andrew Ryan, the founder of the city, Rapture, and your character as their illegitimate son, has DNA that will synchronise with the machines.

There are dozens more, often centred around characters dying and resurrection. In Shadow of Mordor, your character is bonded with a wraith, which works mechanically as 1), your enemies become stronger when they kill you, and 2), it allows the developers to include all kinds of cool wraith powers.

How do we implement these into a book, I hear you ask?

By studying how improbable systems are fictitiously explained, it can open up new levels of understanding, often to your yourself and not your audience. I’m fully supportive of the proponent of keeping secrets from your audience, but sometimes it’s imperative to know things about your world that you never intend to tell your readers. Such as how logically impossible elements can exist in a world with some probability. Sure, you have a powerful magical object suddenly appearing in a contemporary city setting, but how does it affect the laws of physics in a believable way? Does it alter any part of our own reality? You don’t have to figure out where it came from explicitly, your audience can theorise exactly that. All you have to do is make sure you understand the limitations of the world you have created, and how bending those limits affects the world as a whole.

Using video-games as an example can be a great exercise to spice up your writing. How could you implement save systems into your story? Magic systems? Experiencing or levelling up? The answer is never quite simple, but can help flesh out your worlds in ways you never expected.

Breadcrumbs

The most important lesson I discovered while writing short stories, is the idea not to spoon feed your audience. I know that as a consumer, if a Sci-Fi film spends the first five minutes telling me why the world is in the state it is before we’ve even met any characters, I know I probably won’t enjoy it as much as I should. For me, respecting the audience means respecting their intelligence enough to read your intentions through their own deductions. Of course, every writer and reader is different, that’s what makes this field so interesting, but understanding how you want to write and who for is imperative.

Writing a story with limitations on what you can actually disclose to the audience is a way to develop your creativity when approaching a problem. Use self-imposed rules such as creating dialogue where two characters need to tell the other their intentions, without directly using those words.  Try to tell a characters backstory by only using other characters points of view.

Using limitations on what we disclose, we can capitalise on audiences creating their own theories and speculations, completely separate from what you might intend, and that is something to celebrate, not discourage. If we disclose a mysterious characters backstory, people will always be disappointed because what we imagine won’t be as satisfying as what they came up with in their heads. We can’t control and describe every single detail when we write, but we can leave little breadcrumbs and hints for our audience, and let them fill in the blanks that they want to. Even if some go over some heads, others will be caught by them.

Experimentation

Challenging yourself is the only way to improve yourself, and this is just as blatantly true for writers. Any author who I would say I dislike tends to be someone who sticks the same genre or style of story-telling, or the writers who follow safe and steady paths. By trying to limit your comforters, surely you can create new boundaries for yourself.

This can be done by taking genres, topics, or characters that you don’t normally touch, and trying to run with the ideas as far as you can. Try switching up the gender, races, sexual orientation or occupation of your characters from what you’re normally tied to, even if you don’t like how they come out it’s still a learning experience. Perhaps you might be surprised at the results. Maybe you might discover a fondness for a genre you previously dismissed.

Practical limitations can seem like the antithesis of what writing is meant to be fundamentally, but we can use aspects of it to develop our writing and ourselves as writers beyond what we initially thought we were capable of, after all the first million words are only practice, so use that, challenge yourself in fun and interesting ways. Best case scenario, you have created a new story that you and your readers can fall in love with. Worst case scenario? You created some new writing, and that is never a bad thing.

Do you have any examples of practical writing limitations that have helped you? Do you disagree with any of my points? Let’s talk about it!

2 comments

  1. Absolutely love this! Short stories really are some of the best ways to exercise our muscles and they can come in so many different forms. In particular, I think flash and micro fiction are some of my favorite ways to add creative limitations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you liked it! Flash fiction is an excellent exercise in limitations because it’s so tempting to go over the time/word limitations, but learning to conform to those forces you to push the story in different directions you didn’t plan for to create a coherent story, and I love that unpredictability!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s