The Great Paradox of Creativity

When my college creative writing teacher asked me about my sloppy essay, I explained myself in clear terms: “I am a writer. Therefore, I must be completely free to create.”

by David Trottier

It sounded reasonable then, and maybe you agree with me now. After all, the “right brain”—the inner artist—operates at peak creativity when the “left brain”—the inner critic—is otherwise occupied or relaxed. Thus, it only stands to reason that we writers are most creative when no constraints or restrictions are placed on our writing. Right?

Well…not necessarily.

The great paradox is this: Constraints cultivate creativity. It’s true that your inner artist may grow frustrated by intrusions from your inner critic, but outside parameters are just the challenge your right brain relishes. Imposed parameters can be inspiring!

A Lesson from Hitchcock

Psycho is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, and yet there are only two acts of violence in the entire movie. Alfred PsychoHitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano were not allowed to show nudity, nor could they show a knife actually penetrating a body. Gore was not allowed either.

In the now-famous shower scene, the nudity is implied, and the knife is juxtaposed to the body, but is never seen entering the body. The Hershey’s cocoa swirling down the drain terrified me as a child. In a word, Hitchcock & Stefano were forced to be creative in how they wrote and shot that scene. The constraints helped create a classic. Today, there are no or few restrictions to the horror genre of film, and what do we usually get? More and more blood and guts, with little creativity. The art has not advanced.

Certainly it is possible to be creative without restrictions. You’ve experienced that in your own writing. That sacred creative flow transports you to Writer’s Nirvana. But constraints can be helpful, too, and even fun. As I write, I am enjoying the challenge of whittling this article down to 800 words. In so doing, I find myself refining my little opus so that I better connect with you (I hope).

Constraints can be helpful, too, and even fun.

Blocks into Stepping Stones

Have you ever felt blocked at one time or another by the thought of editorial restrictions? Perhaps the constraints reminded you of an overly critical parent or a past nasty authority figure, but they can inspire you if you let go of your initial resistant reaction. With a little re-thinking, the block you feel becomes a veritable stepping stone to better writing.

Much of the great music of the past was commissioned; the composer didn’t initiate the project and was confined to the musical forms of the time. Even hip-hop and rap adhere to some form or format. Everything artistic has two components: form and content. The creativity comes in how you craft the content within the restrictions of that form. Yes, and sometimes the writer transcends that form. Dickens wrote The Christmas Carol as a newspaper serial that later became the classic book.

Perhaps, the most restrictive writing form is the sonnet. Yet, some of world’s most beautiful poetry comes in sonnet form. I remember the pain and joy of writing a poem in iambic pentameter. My college creative writing teacher assigned me to write something worthy of the great poet-writer William Wordsworth. It took me 14 hours to write 14 lines, but I’m a better writer for it. In addition, three magazines paid me to publish it. And even though it wasn’t worthy of Wordsworth, it was terrific for Trottier.

The block you feel becomes a veritable stepping stone to better writing.

48517_confinedFun with a Strait Jacket

Years ago, an independent movie producer paid me a paltry sum to write a screenplay. She gave me a list of twelve parameters, including one car crash with two cars, one burn (that is, one character had to be set on fire), and the limitation of just one outdoor location. I felt so confined. It wasn’t until I slapped my face a few times and accepted her parameters that the writing process became both a challenge and a joy.

Michaelangelo saw himself as, first and foremost, a sculptor. When Pope Jilius II commissioned him to decorate the Sistine Chapel with frescoes, he was not initially interested or inspired. And yet, he changed his attitude and the result is considered one of the world’s great works of art.

Do you want to improve your creativity? Develop and encourage your inner artist and embrace constraints as you would a trusted friend. That fresh attitude may free you to be the best writer you can be.

-David Trottier


Dave Trottier
David Trottier has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.

He is an award-winning teacher and in-demand script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, David Trottier

2 thoughts on “The Great Paradox of Creativity”

  1. As an on-going critic of loglines for Karel’s website, I can relate to the central point being made here … Too often I have read loglines and story concepts that fall flat due to a lack of discipline or thorough thinking on the part of the writer. Protagonist motivations, for example, can often be poorly thought out and unconvincing. Or certain basic requirements for drama (such as a compelling antagonist) are not paid attention to. It is noteworthy that Picasso, for instance, did sketches on his canvases before painting his most surrealist works. So the ideology that high creativity is formless is plain false.

  2. Thanks David, very interesting read. However, I don’t really believe in restrictions – I mean I do, but only a set of rules you impose upon yourself, not some external set of rules. I find writers today are too concerned with writing to meet external expectations, making most of modern literature pedictable and unadventurous. If Faulkner today approached a publisher with an unpublished The Fast and The Fury, I believe he would get laughed out of the office. I believe most greatness comes from thinking outside the box. That’s not too say you can’t be creative and have greatness within the box but I just think that having these external principles to meet curtails ones creativity a great deal.

    And the poster who spoke about Picasso- I’m sure Faulkner spent hours over every sentence he wrote, one doesn’t achieve greatness on a whim, that’s not the point above, with respect.


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