Structure: How A Limit Can Promote Creativity

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My nephew had just been born, making my brother the first of our three siblings to become a parent. I was amazed. I sat on his couch, holding the tiny bundle of joy tucked into my shoulder, feeling nothing but peace and contentment. I was in awe.

I wanted to write about it. I wanted to capture every emotion. I wanted to praise from the rooftops.

And I couldn’t think of a single sentence, a single word that would do justice.

My emotions were too great to allow me to compose, but I knew I had to put words to paper to commemorate the happy day. So I relied on an old standby (original post ):

Swaddled tight in blue,

solid, warm and comforting,

on my chest he sleeps,

a miracle, a blessing,

a gift always to be loved.

The Japanese tanka is a thirty-one-syllable poem that follows a five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form. No poet am I, but I love structure.

The structure became the scaffolding that supported my words. It was the key that allowed me to access my emotion, the tree where my thoughts could hang.

We write a lot about word count: the benefits, the limitations, even how it can make your prose stronger.

But sometimes, an extremely limiting word count or structure can be the catalyst that gets us writing.

One of my favorites is the 55 word story, where your first sentence is 10 words long, the second sentence 9 words, and so on, until your final sentence is 1 word. The structure forces your prose to build toward a dramatic conclusion, and yet! You only have 55 words to create with:

Grabbing the basket, she shifted the baby to her hip. Everything necessary for the long cold walk was packed. She had waited for him until the end. He promised, but the soldiers were here. She would have to go now. She quieted the crying baby. They would be fine. The knock came. She’d survive. Alone. (original post)

There is the alphabet challenge, to create a 26 sentence story where every sentence starts with the letters of the alphabet in order, so that your first sentence begins with the letter “A”, the second with “B,” and so forth.

There are always the haiku and the tanka – perfect little structures that can hold pretty much everything: from a description of a beautiful tree to a lament of lost writing time.

Exercises like the above are everywhere and I am always looking for more.

When I am having a tough day translating my thoughts into words, or if inspiration is entirely lacking, these tightly structured challenges never fail to inspire!

Do you have a favorite challenging structure or writing exercise you like best?

9 Responses to Structure: How A Limit Can Promote Creativity
  1. structure and creative challenges |
    December 6, 2012 | 7:20 am

    [...] Guest posting today over at Write on Edge! [...]

  2. Kathleen Basi
    December 6, 2012 | 1:33 pm

    I love that 55-word story. Packs a powerful punch.

    One of my favorite quotes is Stravinsky: “The greater the limitation, the greater the art.” Sometimes wide-open things are harder to figure out. With the prompts, I try to combine two or three limitations, because it gives me, as you say, a structure–a starting place. Otherwise it can be overwhelming.

    • Barbara
      December 6, 2012 | 1:39 pm

      Great point, Kathleen! I think quite a few of us apply that technique! :)

  3. Brianna
    December 6, 2012 | 6:58 pm

    I like the alphabet challenge thing. That’s a neat structure. I think I’ll try that next time I’m stuck.

    • Barbara
      December 7, 2012 | 8:22 am

      Let me know how it turns out! I always find that one the MOST challenging… what do with “X” “Y” “Z”?? I tend to start there and work backwards.


  4. H.L. Pauff
    December 6, 2012 | 9:05 pm

    I’m a big fan of all of the numerous flash fiction challenges that people host every week. Having that limit has definitely made my writing stronger by forcing me to eliminate fluff and get right to the heart of a story.

    • Barbara
      December 7, 2012 | 8:24 am

      I agree – practicing what we love! Using structure to make us stronger! That’s what, for me, it is all about.

  5. angela
    December 7, 2012 | 10:41 am

    I adore this post. It’s easy to fall into a writing “rut” and these structures can help make the words fall into different places and shake loose things that are jumbled together.

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    January 30, 2013 | 2:24 am

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