Thinking Inside the Box: A Counterintuitive Approach to Storytelling

We’ve all heard the expression “thinking outside the box.” It’s usually associated with creative problem-solving. It involves getting out of our well-worn mental grooves and opening our minds to new possibilities.

But sometimes the most creative solutions come when we restrict our options. In other words, when we stuff ourselves into a box and try to figure out how to work within it.

Stories in 140 characters or less

Twitter fiction is a good example of this. It challenges writers to tell a complete story in 140 characters or less. (We’re talking old school Twitter here.) Many people initially think it can’t be done. To persuade them that it can, I like to cite the famous (albeit likely apocryphal) example of Ernest Hemingway winning a ten-dollar bet for telling a story in only six words. It went: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Whether or not you agree those six words constitute a complete story, you have to admit they pack quite a punch. They compel us as readers to fill in the blanks, to speculate about the person who placed this ad and the events that preceded it. 

Hemingway would have done very well in the age of Twitter, considering that his six-word opus is only thirty-three characters long. If you still doubt the legitimacy of Twitter fiction, then consider that The Guardian newspaper in the UK published Tweet-sized stories from several well-known authors back in 2012, including the likes of Ian Rankin, Jeffrey Archer, and Helen Fielding. 

If you’d like to try your hand at Twitter fiction, then pop one off and post it as a comment to this article. If I like it, I’ll share it in one of my Creative Morsels posts (with due credit to you, of course).

Spurring creativity in novel writing

The notion of introducing constraints to spur creativity isn’t limited to pint-sized fiction. I used it to help me get unstuck when I was writing my third novel, provisionally entitled Weekend Pass.

It’s a story about a nurse who returns home on weekend leave from a drug treatment centre after accidentally poisoning her eight-year-old son. Originally, I had trouble getting a firm grasp on what the beginning, middle, and end of the story were. I started out by using a structure similar to what I used in my first novel, chapters alternating between the past and the present, but it wasn’t working for me this time. It’s only when I decided to focus on the events of the protagonist’s first weekend at home that the story took on the urgency I was looking for. 

The immediate concern of the story became will she survive the weekend? Forcing myself to figure out how to tell the story within a forty-eight-hour timeframe made me approach it with fresh eyes and a sharper focus. It allowed me to discard elements of my earlier drafts that I soon discovered weren’t essential to the story.

Although I focused on events in the present, I was still able to access the past through the characters’ memories. Mind you, I had to be efficient with my use of those memories. Share too much backstory, and the main narrative in the here-and-now would grind to a halt. And so, I decided to reveal snippets of the past gradually, allowing the reader to piece together the motivations of the characters bit-by-bit. It’s an approach often used in mysteries, but instead of being a whodunit, my book is more of a why-they-dun-it.

An example from the working life of musicians

By the way, it’s not just writers who get creative when their options are limited. When I attended Juno Awards Week (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys) here in London in March 2019, I heard two musicians who were new fathers – Donovan Woods and Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas) – talk about finding a way to continue writing songs, even though parenting now demanded so much of their time. They simply learned to become more efficient with the time they had left. And lo and behold, both of them went on to win Junos two days later.

Share your experiences

Do you have similar experiences? Have you ever come up with a particularly creative solution that might never have occurred to you if your options weren’t limited in some way? I’d love to hear about it.

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