Writing with restrictions

Write a feature film. Okay, about what? Anything. Ah, I see.

Infinite possibilities. Writing’s biggest put off. And so, too many great scripts may never be realised because that first blank page is so brutally unforgiving. I’ve been there, it hurts. For some of you out there however, this might not be the biggest cookie to crack, after all, its rare we find ourselves staring at the page without some vague notion of what it is we want to say. Nevertheless, every possible corner turned or word uttered can manifest another million possibilities for out characters and plot. What I want to discuss then is the power of deliberately restraining your scope in favour of exploring the real focus and pull of your story. Now, this is not only an experiment in creative discipline but for the emerging scriptwriter the benefits are business savvy too. Let me divulge a little.

1. The cooking analogy (I just made this up so bear with me). Applying restrictions drastically reduces your possibilities, and that’s good! It breeds creativity. Imagine you are a chef and instead of a bungalow sized pantry of food to create the finest meal possible with, instead you’re handed a beetroot, four turnips, and some herbs. A very unique combination in itself but more importantly you waste no time deliberating over the what could or could not be in the dish. Furthermore, with what you have you are forced to create something magical, to combine that beetroot and turnip in a way that no one has ever seen the likes of before. How? They spend time with them, study their form and flavours to understand the best and most delicate way to balance everything when combined. The same can be said for a script. Whenever I attempt a story I consciously try to reduce who I’m working with and where they will be, even if it’s just for the meantime. This way I force myself to go through the motions of what each character would do or say in these confined spaces to fill out a more organic picture of them. Experimenting with character in this way will also assist in plot development. If you’re like me and struggle with plot and structure it is often the case you do not know your characters well enough and are forcing them to do things that they wouldn’t usually do. In setting deliberate restrictions e.g. your location being the interior of a car (Locke, 2013) or a restaurant (My dinner with Andre, 1981) one has to explore who these people really are in order to create something engaging; there’s no running away from them. One of the best examples of this is the film Nightingale (2014) written by Frederick Mensch. For roughly 84 minutes we never leave the protagonist’s house and are never introduced to any other characters except by phone or from behind a locked front door. And by gum it’s riveting. By the end of the film we are so far into this one mans psyche that very little could pull us away from the story. This can only be achieved because Mensch spent so much time with this character that his movements and actions became fluid and human and stacked with emotion.

Let’s go a little further with this cooking business. It is not unreasonable to imagine being in a state of childish giddy if handed a pantry of food and ingredients (so long as the culinary arts was your jam, so to speak). Instead of taking a step back to understand what you want to achieve one may end up getting carried away, using as much as possible only to confuse the end result and dilute the power of the each individual flavour. Again, the same can be said for scriptwriting. It is easy to get carried away when there is a lack of focus – trusting more expansive plot and characters will draw in a conclusion. It doesn’t work that way. Imposing restrictions will help temper that urge to go big when the the foundations haven’t yet been set up.

To sum, restrictions help focus the mind. They cut away the fat and force you to dig deep and study your characters. However, self imposing restrictions is not just an exercise in creative freedom:

2. Please the producers. Let’s use Nightingale as an example again. One on screen actor and one location. Although distributed by HBO it’s not hard to imagine that the big plus with producers was the low price tag of production. When I set out to write my first feature ‘Dearg’, which essentially features a man living in a boat on a Scottish lake, this thought always lingered in the back of my mind. If anything came of this, it would be dirt cheap to make and hell, if no-ones interested I could do it myself! Christopher Nolan self funded his first feature for roughly £4000 and pretty much put the wheels of his career in motion. The industry is littered with similar timelines – short films, cheap indie features  and if you so wish to, Hollywood could be on the horizon. Let’s be honest, writing a script is great but having it made is the end goal. So, for emerging talent, play the game. Every penny counts in this industry and if you want to be heard your work should be getting made, the easier you make that possible the better.

For more info on restrictions and creativity in other forms of art checkout this article, she talks sense.


Good luck!