Monday, January 28, 2019

Define your limits

So I was watching a Ted talk the other day where an animator was talking about this short animation exercise that he did. He said something illuminating. At least it was to me. He said that he started out, before making any of the art, deciding that he wouldn't have certain things in his work. In his case, it was circles.

I've been thinking about this for a bit, and I do some of the same things with my writing. At the beginning of a story, I make some decisions about how it is going to end. Many times I actually write the last chapter right after writing the first chapter. But I don't want to get into the weeds of how I do things.

This animator was talking about how setting limits for yourself forces you to be creative. By adding constraints and sticking to them our brains naturally start to work to get around the limitations. We see the limitations as obstacles or problems and our brains start to find solutions for them.

Just like formats for poetry and short stories and flash fiction have definitional limits that trend to specific types of content and storytelling. We can go farther by starting out our writing by setting in-story-limits. We can also add these limits in the middle of a story.

At the beginning of writing Airlock, I knew a bunch of things about how I wanted the story to go. How I wanted it to end. And how I wanted the story to feel. But I didn't know how the story would go. But the story didn't even have a title yet.  When I picked an Airlock to be the core challenge for James, the rest of the story got easier to write.

This is basically my writer's block battering ram. If I am looking at a blank page or screen, and I feel like I don't know what to write next, this is the time when I need to impose some limits. Instead of deciding what I am going to write or what the characters are going to do I throw up some limits and obstacles about what the characters are not going to do and what I am not going to write.

If you have read, Arbor Colony, you know that I write multiple point-of-view novels. Sometimes I get feedback from my critique group saying that a certain scene might be better from a different point of view. As the author, I have decided that there are some characters that don't get a POV. We never get to look at the world from inside their head. This is a limitation. And I try to keep it.

There may be times when you have to ditch a limitation. I recommend against it. Once you start telling your brain that you can reach down like the hand of God and remove a limitation you have set for your characters or your society, then the trick is up and you are both back to writer's block, and back to random, global, world refactoring. When I start to feel like this is the only way to save a character, then it is time to let that character die.

Or better yet, set the character on fire. Drop them off of something high. Then run them over with a wheelchair.

There was a point in Arbor Colony where all of the other characters in the story started to really dislike one of the other characters. They didn't want to talk to him. They kept walking out of scenes when he entered. He just became really unpopular in my head. And this was really good for my story.

So I didn't kill him. Instead, I announced to them all that this character was not going to die. It was a limitation that I was placing on the story. No matter how much they beat him up. No matter how often they shot him, or stabbed him or dropped him into pits, he was just going to keep annoying them. When I did this, the pace of my writing got faster and all of the other characters fell into line.

This does not mean he got everything he wanted. He doesn't. He doesn't know that he can't die. But the world knows. And I know. This makes the story work.

Hopefully, the readers are just as angry and annoyed as the all the main characters that this guy won't die. Anyway, that is my hope.

Just like a kite string is the limit that allows the kite to fly high in the sky. The limits we place on our characters, our worlds, and our stories are what lift them up and give them life. Learn to love limits.