Finding creative freedom by adding limitations

Finding creative freedom by adding limitations

I’ve known for a while that sometimes the more constrained you are, the more creative you are forced to become. In writing, this can only be a good thing. Give me a deadline, give me a strict set of guidelines, give me an inflexible word count and together they will force my creative thoughts into places they otherwise wouldn’t go.

This is true whether we discuss copywriting, screenwriting, novels or poetry – the more rules we impose, the more creative we have to become to make our words work within those rules. Copywriters work within very strict rules all the time – finding a creative and imaginative use of words that has to fit within an established campaign, with a certain number of very few characters and that still contains the call to action or branding proposition or whatever the goal for the campaign may be.

This is where the irony comes from that it can be far harder and take far longer to write a headline slogan of one line that to produce a complete 1000 word article.

In fiction, one immensely useful restriction that can be used to force creativity is the setting. Watch what Robert McKee has to say about the subject.

In the video, taken from McKee’s brilliant Story seminar series, McKee stresses how counter to creativity freedom actually is.

Writers, like all artists I would imagine, wish to be free. They don’t like the idea of limitation. They want to be free, free to do anything that they want. But, of course, the desire to be free as an artist is one of the most suicidal emotions you can have.

Writing is about problem solving – always. Whether the problem is how to fit a predetermined company ideology into a 125×125 webpage banner with space for about five words or whether the problem is how to get your lead character into the right place within your story for the plot to unfold correctly, writing is always about problem solving.

Because problem solving forces creativity. If there isn’t a real problem, your solution will not be remarkable. Without a deadline, your brain doesn’t have the sense of urgency to fire those creative muscles. Without a strict word or page count, the tendency to fight to reduce a script or article to the most potent ideas is lost, resulting in overlong and padded, verbose and therefore boring writing.

Setting is one such limitation less considered by writers. I know that as a result of McKee’s thoughts I am reassessing whether I was lazy in the setting I chose for my Nightfall screenplay or whether a change of setting could force the storyline into even more interesting territory.

So try to find creative freedom by imposing more restrictions. If there isn’t a word count, decide on one and stick to it. If the copywriting brief is vague, ask questions until it is fixed and very specific. If you, like me, chose a setting for your screenplay or novel out of convenience – by choosing your local town or a generic ‘city – modern day’ – find a more confronting setting instead. Seems counter-intuitive I know, but your work will improve because of it.


  1. Jena Isle says

    Very informative post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I watched the vid and I am glad that the sample he mentioned, War and Peace, i was able to see that film.
    As for the setting, I really think it’s eciting to have it in a place not physically visited yet.. like “Sandukan” set in Malaysia when the author neve even went there! Or the Lord of the rings trilogy or the harry potter setting…who’ve been in those places?

  3. This is so true. Whenever I have a creative project, my best work is always up against the deadline.

  4. Rouillie Wilkerson says

    I learned a lot from him, including how to kill a creative limitation incarnated as a human being. I understand his point, but telling me I have to give up my freedom sends hackles up my back! The deadline thing, however, fits me to a tee.