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The Evocative Power of Limitations

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A lot of people think that they would come up with the best ideas pretty easily, were they only given carte blanche on a project. And I’m sure this finds most of you in agreement.

Well. It happens, sure, but only with a certain type of mindsets. That is those really lucky minds who are able to conceptualize every scenario in their heads, who can draw deductively the details of a plan and who can inductively go back and forth from the single detail to the whole scenario. I don’t know about you, but I am positive that my mind (and that of my friends’ and colleagues’) is not so efficient (sigh!).

Call it “desert paradox”, call it “tabula rasa syndrome”, were we given the chance to use any solution we want, most of us would freeze. It’s our personal version of the writer’s block.

So, how do you overcome this block?

Let me answer to this with a quote. The author is Age (aka Agenore Incrocci), of the prolific duo Age & Scarpelli, two of the best and most creative screenwriters of the Italian cinema. In his book Scriviamo un film (Let’s Write a Movie — sorry, apparently no English translation around), Age gives a lot of solid, sensible advice to would-be screenwriters, struggling to find a story, or to depict a character, or to put an end to a plot. We are not writing for a movie: maybe we are in the design process; or maybe we’re just struggling with a copy. The analogy works the same.

The chapter’s title is “The file in the cake” and here are some excerpts (very very poorly translated by yours truly, I’m sorry):

The convicted, the prisoner in the cell — the topic of so many tales, movies or comics — he knows he has only one way out of jail: the little wired window. And, in order to violate it, to open a way out, he must hope for a “nail file in the cake” (the knotted sheets will come later, they are an optional).
How can he get that file? From whom? Screenwriters often find themselves in a position not very different from the prisoner’s. Or rather, I think they have to try hard to put themselves in that position. The delusion that, with free hands, we could let out our creativity freely doesn’t grant predictable outcomes; on the contrary, it makes us wander aimlessly, and dispels our ideas, rather than support and assist them. There’s nothing more stimulating for creativity than the necessity to come up with the solution to an issue (be it small or big) within strict limits, than being bound to browse through what already exists, that we know already and that is, in a certain way, at our disposal to solve the issue. By “what already exists” I mean:
a) the setting we are in and which contains:
b) the things (the “tools”): rummage your characters’ pockets: they can hide everything you want, we want, and that — with “professional honesty” — has been put in them;
c) the situations that have been already set up, the “work in progress”;
d) the characters, with their relationships, nature, habits, jobs, tics (which are rarely accidental in a movie).
It is somehow a bet. And, above all, a game. Like a word play where you have to obtain words from the letters that form another word: things, facts. The nail file in the cake.

So, next time you are given budget limits or very strict project limitations, don’t complain: stop for a second, and think of them as your saving grace, as your file in the cake. Without them, you most probably would get lost.

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Written by Paola

April 3, 2008 at 10:18 am

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