Broccoli-eating of writing

Or why frustrating limitations can be useful.

There’s this fantasy anime/manga favorite of mine, Hunter X Hunter, which has a world-building detail I used to find random and arbitrary. The characters of this world, who invent and develop their own superpowers, can make themselves significantly more powerful by putting extreme limitations on themselves. Want that fireball to have some real juice to it? Make it so you can only produce fireballs during odd days of the month when you’ve eaten at least 10 chili peppers first. Want to be able to fly really, really fast? Make it so you have to spend the rest of your time in a wheelchair and then first recite a 10-minute epic poem to the wind in a foreign language. (In case you’re wondering, neither of these are real examples from the series.)

Limitations on superpowers are essential in story-building, to make sure the superpowered don’t just smite their opposition out of existence. Just ask the creator of Superman’s Kryptonite. Or just ask whoever tried to write a storyline for Peter Petrelli in Heroes season 2. But there was something about the way Hunter X Hunter said outright that limitations equal power. As though it was a philosophical stance, not just a plot-writing necessity.

Which brings us to Twitter.

I have only a slight acquaintance with tweeting, but in my experience it’s hard. Banging out some one line response that boils down to either, “Haha, you’re so right!” or “Grrr, no, and now I dislike you!” is one thing. But actually crafting something that’s meaningful yet humorous, or poignant yet comprehensible, or incisive yet fair? And then fitting it into a 140-character post? Without using so many shortcuts that the post looks like a preschooler’s message in crayon crossed with the output of an Enigma machine?

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 5.36.38 PM
“…that make us sound illiterate and probably leave out important context.”

A good tweet is art, my friends. Half the time I find myself “liking” tweets more for their technical delivery than for their message. Anyone can explain themselves if you give them enough space; boiling essays down to the size of an aphorism is brilliant.

There are also other restricted writing modes. My library had a “Tiny Story Contest” a few months back, where entries were limited to 420 characters.  I wrote a few tiny stories, just for the hell of it, and had fun but found it challenging. How do you fit plot, characterization, and setting into 420 characters? It’s the same kind of challenge I have writing tweets; how do you lay out even the slightest complexity in 140 characters? Because I’m stubborn, and I refuse to give up on complexity.

One thing these limitations have taught me is that I use too many useless qualifying words that can be cut when something makes me. I also use a lot of long, complicated words and phrases that can be replaced with something shorter. The complicated words aren’t always the wrong ones; but often the writing becomes stronger with simplification because it’s cleaner and clearer.

Incidentally, this is an awareness I plan to apply to a book draft I’ve been working on … which might be too long.

So, just like eating broccoli is good for my health, I’m convinced that practicing tweets and other short forms would be good for my writing style. (Twitter itself might be less good for my blood pressure, but that’s another kettle of rotting fish heads to deal with.)

Seems I’ve come around to the idea that limitations can make you stronger, after all.

And, also incidentally, I like eating broccoli. Especially in teriyaki stir-fry. Yum.


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