Sunday, October 21, 2018

Creativity and Constraint

Who likes rules? Who wants to be curtailed by limits? Or constraints. Most of us began rebelling against such things at about twenty-four months. And writers have spent years encountering commandments on everything from how often you “should” write to how often you “should” use a hook.

The smartest writers among us realize that there’s an exception to every rule. Because there definitely is. In certain instances, you absolutely need to “tell.”  Sometimes more detail is better, sometimes not. Reader expectations about point of view have changed radically and dramatically—even from what seemed acceptable a few decades back. Lots of exceptions.

Still, if you’d like to be an original and “good” writer, as opposed to being someone who writes, consider who benefits when you rebel. Yes, sometimes those exceptions are exactly what’s needed. More often, though, enormous opportunity lurks in addressing issues rather than disregarding them. When writers ignore this source of serendipity, readers pay.

Tip: The best brainstorming you’ll ever do comes from solving an apparently insoluble problem.

Consider this example.
Louella imagined popping the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads while shrieking, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.”
“Easy there, girlfriend,” Hortense advised, as if reading Louella’s mind.
Is there a constraint here? You bet. The quotation marks in what Louella thinks precede identical quotation marks in what Hortense says aloud. Particularly back to back, two uses of one kind of punctuation are at best distracting, at worst, confusing.

A writer faced with this issue can choose from several options.
  1. Assume that most readers will get it, even if it stops them just for a minute.
  2. Cut the two sentences and make the point some other way.
  3. Decide that the creative response is addressing the issue rather than ignoring or deleting it.
Want to choose # 3? Here’s one alternative: 
Louella wanted to shriek, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.” She wanted to pop the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads. She wanted to wreck Hortense’s sleek hairdo. She wanted to…
As if reading Louella’s mind, Hortense advised, “Easy there, girlfriend.”
More often than not, there’s an innovative way to follow the rules. So. Why not limit any rationalizing to what your characters say or think. Because the best writers follow very few rules all the time. Those same writers follow all reasonable rules a lot of time. And every writer needs to know those rules—and be able to justify precisely when and why it’s okay to break them. 

After all, as Anne Enright observes with painful candor: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Respect for constraints is among the best ways to make any writing better.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****