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: [Read more…]