Why Constraints Makes Art better.

Conflict is the bread and butter of narrative.

Put an exploding bomb threat into a story and one gains pace, tension and agency. Put a supernatural being of evil intent into a confined space with unsuspecting victims, and one gains heightened adrenaline rushes.

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What is significant to both games and stories is that the creation of rules necessary to an fully immersive experience. Placing tightly buttoned rules around characters – rules of etiquette, legitimacy, land title, inheritance, and so forth – effectively binds protagonists into both a believable universe worth investing emotional energy in, and also creates a highly tense, problem ridden one.

Aristotle in his seminal work Poetics, describe the primary motivator for a protagonist to be a wound, a life forming incident which leads them astray and into conflict. As an audience we want to follow them to find out how they resolve it, or find catharsis..

The greater the conflict or the limitations around the protagonists on this journey, the greater the emotional release, the catharsis, upon resolution.

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Give characters hateful parents, remove them of parentage as strays or orphans, constrict them as “bastards” without any chance of legitimacy or claim to title, confine them as slaves, restrict them as women without rights, or give them a deformity or curse them as outcasts, place them within intricate systems of religious belief, confine them to socioeconomic controls or limit them within elaborate traditions which demarcate what they can and cannot do.

In other words, place blockages for your protagonists at every turn, the more that exist, the more tension is built, and the greater the payoff when they break through to liberty.

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These are steps to human freedoms.

Stories, which are made of the creation and release of tension, are thus fed by the hero journey, or the journey of the human towards freedom.

However, the hero journey tells us that ultimately, there comes a point where the human cannot progress further into freedoms without facing an ultimate sacrifice. Freedom is only truly won  by the very surrender of what is sought.

At this point the hero faces a “death” experience – a death to freedom itself, lest freedom become a new task master not unlike the old. This death to self, and self-giving to others,  prompts the rebirth of an enlightened hero, in possession of not only freedom but connectivity to hope again.

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

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According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

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He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.