Positive Constraints in Literature

Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.

Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.

Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.

Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.

No Adverbs

The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.

In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.

Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.

Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.

Word Counts

Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.

One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.

Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.

Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.

Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.

Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.

And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).

No Clichés

If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.

Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.

Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:

  • “When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
  • “The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
  • “A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”

Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.

And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.

Ludic Literature

Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.

Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”

Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.

Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.

Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”

And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.

The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.

What do you think?