Recently I set out to write a new web series. But unlike most spec work that I do, this series is heading to production. That means it had some limitations, mostly the budget. It’s almost non-existent. That meant I was limited to very few characters (because characters translate to actors who translate into steep costs), very few locations or locations that could be shot on a green screen and composited later, minimal crew for the shoot and just one to two days to shoot the entire thing (so no complex shots or coverage) and very few props or costumes.
It was daunting. I put off the writing for as long as I could. I had no idea how to write something so… small. I’d settled on just two characters at most, because of the cost and complexity of adding more — but I had no idea how to carry an entire story across eight episodes with just two people. I also settled on the fact that the episodes would have to be short, like four or at most five pages. That came about partly for practical reasons. Shorter content is more readily consumed online, but again, I had to keep in mind the limitations of the shooting schedule. There wouldn’t be enough time or resources to shoot longer episodes. On top of all that, a few of the episodes — again nodding to the time and budget constraints — would be easier on production if there was only character. That mean monologues.
I don’t write monologues. Or at least, I never have.
So finally I forced myself nearly at gunpoint to sit down and start working. And something kind of magical happened.
The structure that was being imposed on my work, which I’d viewed as scary and limiting and nearly unworkable, unleashed me. When your options are wide open and unlimited it’s oh so easy to drift and lose focus. You can go anywhere with the story, so … you do. If you think about it, that should be the scarier position to be in. It’s like being in a boat in the middle of the ocean with no markers in sight to guide you. It can be so easy to get lost.
Structure and limits, though, give you a place to play that’s secure and well-defined. Instead of being adrift in an ocean where anything is possible you’re in a sandbox where the boundaries are clear. You can go crazy in that structure without ever stepping outside of it. Think about all of the things you can create in that sandbox. Have you been confined and hampered? No. Instead, you’ve narrowed your focus and reined in limitless and general (and when it comes to art, general = blah) to the specific. And the more specific your work, the more powerful it becomes.
In the span of a few hours over two days, I’d written seven episodes (including two that are four-minute monologues), created a story that arcs in both plot and character (not to mention creating two new characters in the process). Last week, I wrapped up the last episode and now have a complete first season of a series that’s ready to go and fits the production constraints. What I thought would dull my creativity instead gave me a fantastic space to create and create quickly.
For me, the limits and the structure were imposed by outside forces, but you might not be there yet. So, then, how can you translate this to your own work? You already are in some ways. Choosing a genre and format are already ways of imposing certain structures. That doesn’t mean you have to slavishly adhere to genre conventions and in fact, having a structure imposed on you is one of the best ways to know when to break out of conventions. But it does mean that your YA novel probably shouldn’t come in at the word count of high-fantasy epic without a really f*&cking fantastic reason.
You can go further if you like, just by making up restrictions that challenge. Think of it like a painter who intentionally limited their palette (and usually to great effect). If for nothing else, it’s great practice for the time when you are creating under someone else’s constraints. Writing in first person, for example, if you always write in third. That really limits the places you can go in a story — you’re always with just one character, always only knowing and seeing what the one character knows and sees. Limit your number of characters, like I had to. Write a story that takes place in the span of a minute (and if you want to read one of my favorite shorts ever that almost literally is about one, solitary single moment — get in touch).
The trick here is to stop thinking about constraints and structures as things that are designed to dampen your creativity, but instead supports that will push you to new heights. So, go forth and unleash your creativity.