Constraint and Creativity – A great story needs both

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An author’s job isn’t just to string words into plots. An author must govern the words, wrestle them into place, make them do his or her bidding, and use their sounds to create rich, crystal clear thoughts. It’s no easy task. Often word-wrangling is like herding cats.

Creative flow is often at odds with constraint. The flourish into which we pour our passion onto the page leaves little room for restriction. Every word, every phrase seems necessary, and even the clunky ones hold some beauty. And in the beginning, any thoughts of constraint are fearful beasts. After all isn’t constraint writer’s blocks neighbor?

Constraint is not, of course. Writer’s block is a horrific shroud that prevents the words from reaching the page. Constraint is the power to weed out the unnecessary, to apply a “less is more” approach, and in doing so, it creates strength from absence.

Author Ernest Vincent Wright mastered writing constraint.

Mr. Vincent’s book “Gadsby” (1939) had fifty thousand words. And not a single one of them contained the letter “e.” That kind of control hurts my brain.

“E” is the most used letter in language. And although there is no creative reason to dismiss it, “constrained” writing has many benefits for a writer. Perhaps removing the “e” from your keyboard, as Mr. Vincent did, is a bit extreme, but such practices teach us to be careful writers. To consider our word choices, the verb choices, the conjunctions and prepositions, the unnecessary words, and to improve them, which often means to remove them.

Perhaps the best example is the six-word novel that is attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn.

In those six words exist all kinds of possibilities and an almost palatable sadness. If you added anything to it, the effect would be lost.Aside from obtaining such genius or working without the letter “e,” an author can employ basic strategies to constrain and therefore “tighten” the writing.

Aside from obtaining such genius or working without the letter “e,” an author can employ basic strategies to constrain and therefore “tighten” the writing.

Our story is like a child. As it grows our first inclination is love without restraint. Everything the baby wants the baby gets. But in time as the baby reaches toddlerhood and then childhood we understand that if we want them to grow to be happy, healthy, and wise, we must provide our offspring with not only love but also, some discipline.

A writer’s story is the same. Someday your “baby” will go off on its own into that cold, cruel world – you don’t want it still wearing diapers when it does.

The easiest place to begin, and one of my favorite exercises, is to hunt and kill every unnecessary passive verb and needless word. Now I cheat and use a Macro (which we’ll get to in the coming months), but you know the ones of which I speak.

My characters begin with a bunch of “was’s” in their life. They seem always to be “was-ing” about something. Oh, and they also seem to “seem” an awful lot when “appeared” would provide greater strength. They also “just” the hell out of things. They just tried, just arrived, and just made it. And, boy, if I had a dollar for every time they “realized” something.

Most, if not all, of these needless modifiers and weak verbs, can and do go. And in that process, I discover better, stronger, and more interesting ways to convey the story. I also search and destroy “of the” anytime I can. The prepositional phrase adds more useless words than are required for most sentences. Usually when you’re writing about the “author of the book,” it is better to state it as “the book’s author.”   

Constrained writing, of course, has its limits. As fiction writers, we have an obligation to add a bit of flourish and style to our works. We’re not passing on facts we are telling a story. But it is good practice all the same, and you’ll discover that a focus on elimination often leads to better and more powerful paragraphs.

If you’re interested in more tips on topic – or should I write: more topic tips – I’d suggest William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. His guide is geared to the nonfiction writer, but I discovered the content serves fiction writers as well.

Here is the same post content with a more constrained style. Nothing has been left out but 210 words have been removed…and most of my personality.

An author does more than string words into plots. The author governs the words, wrestle them into place, demands their bidding, and employs them to create rich and vivid images in the reader’s mind. The task is not easy and word-wrangling can feel like herding cats.

Creative flow and constraint are often at odds. The passionate storytelling flourish leaves no room for restriction. Every word and phrase appear necessary, and even the clunky ones hold beauty. Thoughts of constraint loom like fearful beasts. Constraint too close a neighbor to Writer’s Block.

Constraint is not the horrific shroud that prevents the words from reaching the page. Constraint weeds out the unnecessary, it applies a “less is more” approach and uses absence to create strength.

Author Ernest Vincent Wright mastered writing constraint.

Mr. Vincent’s book “Gadsby” (1939) had fifty thousand words. And not a single one of them contained the letter “e.”

There is no creative reason to dismiss the letter “e.” “E” is the most common letter in language. Constrained writing, however, is beneficial to the author. Constraint teaches us careful writing. A careful consideration of word and verb choices. A reflection upon unnecessary words, conjunctions and prepositions. Constrained writing demonstrates the power of removal.

Consider the six-word novel attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn.

Six words that relay both possibility and completeness and almost palatable sadness. Any addition would ruin the effect.

Learning constraint is the application of basic strategy to tighten the writing.

A story is like a child. It grows first with unrestrained love and fulfillment. Upon toddler-hood, however, parents learn that a healthy, happy, and wise being requires discipline too.

Someday the writer’s story will enter the cold, cruel world. It can ill afford to wear diapers on that day.

Constraint begins with a hunt and kill exercise. The removal of unnecessary words, passive verbs, and elimination of cumbersome prepositions. Some authors use Macros to assist the hunt, but for most writers, software shortcuts are not required.

If your characters are besieged by “Was’s” eliminate them. If things too often “seem” then have those things “appear.” If “just” appears more often than your characters then, strike it. And if people regularly “realize” then let the understanding speak for itself.

Most needless modifiers and weak verbs are not required and can be removed. In the process, the writer discovers strong, concise storytelling. The same goes for prepositional phrases. Useful, yes but often easy to eliminate. “The author of the book” is not as concise as “the book’s author.”

Constrained writing does have limits. Fiction writers have an obligation to include small doses of flourish and style is critical. A story is not a newspaper article or college thesis. But constrained writing and elimination, when applied with care, creates compelling stories.

To learn more on the topic read William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. Although geared to the nonfiction writer, the content nonetheless serves fiction writers as well.

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