In college, I was in a dance improvisation company that gave me a healthy appreciation of the way constraining creativity can help it move forward. Our on-the-spot performances were informed by suggestions from the audience. It usually went something like this.
“What would you like to see a dance about?” our director would say.
“Love,” someone would call out.
“That’s a start,” our director would say, “but we need something more specific. What is the nature of this love?”
Someone else would call out, “A man who loves a dog.”
“Closer. Narrow it more.”
“A man who loves a dog that for some reason can’t walk.”
Bingo. Narrowing the topic made ideas blossom, and a dance was born.
Why limit your story
What is the difference between “love” and “a man who loves a dog that for some reason can’t walk?”
The first is a generic topic that could go off in a million directions. The sheer number of possibilities can be paralyzing.
The second has rails that inspire, inform, and guide story movement.
A man who loves a dog that for some reason can’t walk might stand still, petting the dog, while the rest of the world goes by. He might carry the dog everywhere in a backpack; set it beside him on a chair in an outdoor café. Another type of man might drag the dog around, insisting that the lazy dog’s discomfort would eventually inspire him to use his legs, while yet another might manipulate the useless limbs, praying all the while, hoping that consistent attention might bring about a miracle. The man might decide that a dog was meant to run free, and conclude that the most loving thing to do would be to put the dog down.
Imagine that this man is a character in your novel. Maybe the novel isn’t about the man and the dog, specifically, but this relationship is simply a fact of the character’s existence. How he acts would tell us a lot about his character, wouldn’t it? The situation would create interesting limitations around the character’s ability to engage in other aspects of the story.
Specificity breeds universality
You know what the man in love with the dog reminds me of? Writing a novel manuscript.
A manuscript doesn’t have working legs. Without a publisher it can’t go anywhere. It may never have legs, despite the way you manipulate its limbs and cover it with prayer. Yet you love it, and so you take it everywhere in your mental backpack. Only you can decide when it’s time to put it down.
The late film critic, Roger Ebert, explained the importance of a story’s specificity while reviewing Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s story about two gay cowboys:
Strange but true: the more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.
If I had been watching a dance troupe riff on the generic concept of “love,” I never would have drawn meaning about my manuscript. It took a man and a dog who couldn’t walk to get me there.
Expand inward through pockets of story
Constraining your story helps it stay on its rails. When it hits the boundaries you’ve set, you can still expand it—by moving inward.
You can study this technique in Sag Harbor, in which author Colson Whitehead stitches together pockets of story that illuminate his characters. Benji, the narrator, reflects on spending the summers of his youth in an all-black community in the Hamptons. At every turn, he uses setting details—such as this passage’s charcoal briquettes—to deepen characterization:
Kingsford charcoal, my father’s fuel of choice. When it came to grilling, anyway. The coals rustled out of the big blue-and-white bag onto the grate. Gravity had a design, tossing them in a certain arrangement. My father had his own laws, a precise concept of fire formation honed over the years. To people like you and me, a briquette is a briquette. Not to him. He seemed to analyze each coal individually, taking measure of its strengths, deficits, secret potential. The diamond in the darkness. He knew where they needed to go, recognizing the uniqueness of each cube and determining where it fit with the rest of the team. He assembled the pyramid meticulously, perceiving the invisible—the crooked corridors of ventilation between the briquettes, the heat traps and inevitable vectors of released energy, any potential irregularity that might undermine the project. The sublime interconnectedness of it all. He asserted his order. Built his fire.
Whitehead goes on like this for two more long paragraphs. When on occasion someone else would come along and offer up an alternate fire building technique, “My father glared at them like the imbeciles they were, spatula a-dangle.”
You know this character. He could have been your high school choir director or football coach, your corporation’s human relations manager or your mother. We recognize him through the way he lights a charcoal fire, in a delightful pocket of story that allowed Whitehead to expand his story inward.
Have you ever set a limit that expanded the creativity in your story? If so, what kind? Is “expanding inward” a story-starting technique for you, or something you add in later drafts?
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