About Your Writing: Restrictions

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.


“Sometimes, restrictions can be creative.”

—Zadie Smith

Once upon a time, long before I discovered prose writing, I wrote plays. This was after I failed my upper division jury as an actor in college and, lost and foundering, I stumbled into a poetry course in the English Department. There I discovered my people (writers) and myself. I couldn’t believe how underexposed I was to this amazing thing called poetry, and would do little other for the next year than work at a grocery store and take poetry workshops before drifting back to the Drama Department, where I began writing plays.

I can think of no writing form more limiting than playwriting. The stage is, after all, four walls (with variations), a handful of actors (limited by the possibilities of human bodies), your words out of their mouths, and whatever visual and aural imagery you can invent with your characters and standard theatrical components. Add to this the fact that the more expensive your set requirements, the fewer productions you’ll get, so you learn to keep things simple. Also, a playwright can’t just throw another character on the page like a prose writer can. Actors cost money, and usually the more you have, the more the tension (and the story) is dissipated. You want to boil the script down to the fewest characters possible. There is a pressure from all this that forces things inward, and downward. And…you might have to trust me on this, but searching for what is possible under those restrictions can actually free up your imagination, or at least inspire it. Counterintuitively, limitations often create possibilities. They focus you on where your real options lay (hint: character, conflict, storyline…people being people).

Another thing these limitations do is force you to go deeper into your ideas (as opposed to crazy-ass over-the-top scenes and special effects) and to push them as far as you are able. Think of the old horror movies on shoestring budgets that operate off a single idea with almost no special effects, and yet are terrifying, such as the original The Night of the Living Dead or Blair Witch. Or the intensity of the two-actor play, ‘night, Mother, or the four-actor play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? These things are relentless. And theater done well is relentless—an audience trapped in a contained space with actors on a stage who in real time peel back the layers of their characters heading to an unavoidable conclusion. There’s no room for fat, and no escape for anyone.

But that’s playwriting, and after more than a decade working with the form, I discovered prose writing. And what immediately struck me was the freedom. I mean, you want a fire-breathing elephant charging through a tea shop, put the words down and it’s manifest. A glow-in-the-dark typhoon sweeping away a village? No sweat. I couldn’t believe how free I felt. It was glorious.

For some of us, though, all that freedom inherent in prose writing, all that anything-can-happen, can make us shut down, especially when beginning a project and you’re dealing with pure potential. Freedom can result in arbitrariness. If a project can be anything, that may sound great and “freeing,” but anything, on some level, is nothing. Freedom can end up as a liquid without a container, running all over the place to no point.

Look at football and how highly regimented it is. The field (the container) is 100 yards long and 53- and 1/3-yards wide. The players have to stay within those boundaries, and officials stand at the ready to enforce the rest of its many rules. Within those rules and boundaries, there is tremendous freedom and improvisation (just watch a wide receiver hip-fake a defender out of his shorts then sprint down the field to catch a ball), but it’s only within them that a story can play out. Without those limitations there would be at best a muddled story and, more likely, no story at all. There would be incoherence.

One of the great tricks of writing in any form, but especially longform prose, is figuring out the limitations of your story, which for a lot of us is done via the writing itself. The moment the limitations become clear—oh, this event is the midpoint of my story; or…that character wouldn’t do *that* (which eventually becomes that character must do *this*); or…this unfired gun in Act 1 needs to turn up in Act 3 (unless you’re breaking a rule on purpose and the story seems to need it); or…you’ve spotted the ending, so now you can see how the storylines are all heading to that specific point, which helps you manage them… This all is a gift, because you no longer feel like you’re herding cats. Now the cats are herding themselves, headed toward a destination, and their options are increasingly limited as they approach it, which creates compression, which creates energy. That’s why when you read a book with a well-constructed ending it feels like the book could have ended no other way. Because in truth at that point, by its design, it couldn’t.

Limitations are your ally. The challenge is finding them and seeing them, but once you do, you can then redesign and reshape the story to follow them. Because that is the task at the end. To step back from your notion of what you want your story to be and address what the story seems to want to be, or more accurately, what it could become (and what it can’t), what it is becoming (and what it’s not), and finally, what it is. This step can sometimes feel a little mysterious. This is where your work can become smarter than you, almost an entity to itself, like perhaps the first time you see your child as separate from you. Then your job becomes serving the potential in what seems so familiar but is also a surprise, something one step beyond your imagination of it. By recognizing the limits and demands and possibilities and freedoms of the specific path it is on, and helping it travel down it.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

2 responses to “About Your Writing: Restrictions

  1. “Limitations are your ally.” Now you tell us Steve, although I’ve assumed that in my writing projects over the years. What you have done here is said, as I read it, that writing needs structure, not in the arc of a story sense, but physical limitations. If it is Twitter you have 35 words is it? Flash Fiction gives you 500 words or less. That is certainly one structure. But I think you mean it in an architectural sense of designing structure? Is that about right?


  2. Yes, that’s right Josh. But I’m speaking about limitations in general. Yes there’s the architectural sense of design (and its limits) say, for long form, and then there’s the physical limitations of flash fiction (500 words) or the stage, which can cause creative thoughts to appear because of the pressure from those limitations. I’m talking about both those things, which aren’t exactly the same, but have much common territory.


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