Constraints in Creative Writing: How Tying Yourself Down Can Lead to Setting Yourself Free

Most people who pick up a pen or open up a blank document on their computer to write do so because they have an idea that they want to put on paper, something that they feel is theirs to share with the world. The freedom that comes with not having any type of restraint on your own writing can be intoxicating–no counting words, glancing back at a prompt, or trying to shoehorn a story into a genre or writing style–especially to a new writer who has only ever practiced their craft within the strict confines of academia. And yet, more often than not, these writers find themselves staring at a blank paper, unsure of how the magnificent idea in their head has devolved into an unravelled sweater of a mess, with loose sentences hanging like threads on the edges of what was supposed to be a complete work, wondering, How did this happen?

What we as writers tend to forget is that constraint is a tool like any other, a structural foundation to build up on and shape the stories we write like scaffolding on a building. In the same way that having too much choice in a supermarket aisle can overwhelm you, having too much freedom in the creative process can adversely affect your work, leading to vague characters and story points, rambling scenes with no direction, or even the dreaded writer’s block. This has been shown again and again in studies: when given absolute freedom, people tend to stick to what they know: if our boxes are taken away, most of us will gladly draw our own box to keep the same familiarity that we are accustomed to. Like a large stone in a small river, a constraint or limitation can force the writing process in different and interesting directions, creating new rivulets and flows of thought that we would not have considered had the path of least resistance remained open and available.

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So how does one go about limiting their creativity without completely squandering the spark that inspired one to write in the first place? There is a balance that must be struck both in the amount of constraint that you use and the type of limitations you set yourself, and only you can decide what will help support you and what will weigh you down. For example, in my own work, each chapter is limited to 5000 words, and each character gets their own chapter, in a specific order. The following are some examples of constraint that can be used as a warm-up exercise or applied to your current work to push it from a meandering thought to a readable and enjoyable work:

 

Time Constraints:

  • Pick a scene. Take a timer and write it out for five minutes. When your timer goes off, stop, set it again for three minutes, and write the scene again. Set your timer a third time for 30 seconds. Write the scene again. Compare the three.
  • Take a dialogue. Speak it out loud. Time yourself how long it would take for you to say the words in real life. Read the dialogue–does it take significantly longer to read? If so, what can you cut?
  • Take 15 minutes to write. Even if you have nothing to write about, keep putting words on paper. It is fine to repeat “I have no ideas right now”–the point is to feel what it feels like to constantly keep your mind and your hands moving.

Word Constraints:

  • Write a scene. Try to make it as long as possible–add as many words as you can. Go back and cut the scene to 500 words. Read it: does it still make sense? Cut it again to 300 words. See how many times  you can do this while still keeping the spirit of the text intact.
  • Pick five words from the dictionary. Write a scene using these five words. You can also do this picking a random line from your favorite book or newspaper.
  • Write a scene. Avoid any use of adverbs.
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More advanced constraints:

  • Pick a scene from your work. Rewrite it from the perspective of an outsider, or from a different character’s perspective.
  • Write a scene using only dialogue. Try to keep description sentences to three max.
  • Mix and match constraints–for example, write a 500 word story using a random quote in 15 minutes