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Constrained Writing

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This is when an author writes in an atypical pattern. The reasons for this can vary, from Leaning on the Fourth Wall (if it's related to the story in some way), to keeping certain plot points and twists hidden to the very end (e.g. avoiding gender pronouns for a Samus Is a Girl twist; see The All-Concealing "I") to simply being a stylistic choice. Some types of self-imposed challenges include writing in a particular metre, or making each line a letter longer than the one that preceded it; writing in code (e.g. replacing words with ones that appear a few places afterwards in the dictionary); avoiding certain common letters (the correct term for this is a lipogram, by the way; E is the most commonly used because it's the most commonly used vowel in several languages); using words that display some sort of complex pattern (e.g. making large chunks of the story alliterative or in palindromes); drabbles (stories of precisely 100 words) and many more.

Remember this applies to any challenge imposed on the author by themselves, so normal deadlines and schedules don't count, though improvising with limited resources or using a particularly strict time limit does (see NaNoWriMo for one example).

The alternative name "Oulipo" is from a group of French writers who were dedicated to this style of writing. The Other Wiki also has an article on the concept.

Some authors might adopt this as a Signature Style. Unconventional Formatting can be related. When this is used within an otherwise normal piece of writing to show something specific then it is Painting the Medium. Flash Fiction is a subtrope.


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    Live-Action TV 
  • Joss Whedon wrote "Hush" in the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a rebuke to critics saying that his work was too dependent on his Signature Style of Buffy Speak.
  • An episode of How I Met Your Mother sees Barney attempt to get a woman's number without using the letter "E".
    • "Hi. My word for... this guy... (points at self) is Barrrr...nooo. Barno! You... look... not ugly. Your... dial thing (point at his phone) ... is what?"
  • An episode of Zoey 101 has Chase, Michael, and Logan challenge each other to see who can go the longest without saying any words with the letter "S".

  • Older Than Feudalism: In the 6th century B.C., Lasos of Hermione wrote a hymn to Demeter without using the letter sigma, of which a fragment still survives.
  • A Void (and La Disparition, its Gallic original) leaves out the letter E, and also has well received translations in most other European languages.
  • Gadsby: A Story of Over 50000 Words Without Using the Letter "E" by Ernest Vincent Wright.
  • Mike Keith:
    • "Poe, E.: Near a Raven" is a version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven with the limitation that words must have the same number of letters as the corresponding digit of pi.
    • An an encore, Not A Wake is a 10,000-word book (a collection of poems, short stories and play scripts) with the same constraint.
  • Le Train De Nulle Part is a French novel with no verbs.
  • In her first Lythande short story, "The Secret of the Blue Star", written for Thieves' World, Marion Zimmer Bradley carefully tried to avoid referring to the gender of the magician Lythande to conceal the Twist Ending that Lythande is a woman. She did slip up at one point, however:
    Lythande drew from the folds of his robe a small pouch containing a quantity of sweet-smelling herbs, rolled them into a blue-grey leaf, and touched his ring to spark the roll alight. He drew on the smoke, which drifted up sweet and greyish.
  • David Langford's "A Surprisingly Common Omission" is a drabble written without using the letter E.
  • Harlan Ellison once sat in a department store window for five hours, with the challenge being that he write a 500+ page novel in that time-frame. And pulled it off. In addition, he's written several short stories in this manner, with other people (including his close friend Robin Williams) providing written prompts just before he starts. One of his better-known storefront stories, "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet", is a series of 26 short, disturbing proto-Creepypasta vignettes (one for every letter of the alphabet) written over the course of eight hours in the front window of a science fiction bookstore.
  • NaNoWriMo's idea is to write a novel with at least X words in a month. The default value of X is 50,000, but some people go for up to million words.
    • Similarly, Script Frenzy is a challenge to write 100 pages of script.
    • On the other end of the spectrum, there's flash fiction, short stories under a certain length, and "drabbles", stories exactly 100 words long.
  • Dr. Seuss:
    • He wrote The Cat in the Hat as a challenge to write an interesting story using a very small vocabulary of words which a 6 year-old should know.
    • Reportedly Green Eggs and Ham was a challenge to create an interesting children's story using no more than 50 different words.
  • Eunoia, by Christian Bok, is a collection of poetic prose. Each entry only uses words that use a single vowel. (The word "eunoia" itself is the shortest word in English that uses all five vowels).
  • Isaac Asimov wrote "Insert Knob A in Hole B" live on television (although he admitted he saw the challenge coming and prepared for it). The preparation time was a few minutes before the show started.
  • Poul Anderson wrote the essay "Uncleftish Beholding" in which he described basic atomic theory and the periodic table in a manner as if English had never adopted any French, Latin, or Greek vocabulary but instead only used its Germanic roots:
    Some of the higher samesteads are splitly. That is, when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one—as, for a showdeal, ymirstuff-235—it bursts it into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome.
  • Alphabetical Africa is a novel in 52 chapters, beginning with only words that start with 'a', and then 'a' and 'b', up to chapter 26, where all the alphabet can be used. From chapter 27 to 52, the letters words can start with recede back to 'a'.
  • 2002: A Palindrome Story is a story written with exactly 2002 palindromic words.
  • In The Three Musketeers, Aramis mentions that he has written a poem with each line consisting of only one syllable.
  • Around 1800, German poets were hotly debating whether or not one should write sonnets in German (it being a form originally created in Italian and according to some better suited to the Italian language). Johann Heinrich Voss, best known for translating The Iliad and The Odyssey into German hexameters, was in the "against German sonnets" camp, but in order to show that he did this as a matter of choice, not because he was unable to write proper sonnets, he wrote the Klingsonate (roughly: "tinkle sonata") in 1808, which consists of three parodistic sonnets. In the first, each line consists of one syllable; in the second there are eight lines of three syllables each and six of two syllables; the third has lines of eleven syllables each and uses a lot of Italian words.
  • In the Gene Wolfe short story My Book, the narrator is writing a book starting with the last word and working backwards.
  • The Czech author Jan Werich wrote "a constrained tale using monosyllabic words, or a praise of the Czech language".
  • As explained in an afterword, The Squares of the City by John Brunner is based on a chess game (specifically the 1892 world championship game between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin), with key characters representing various pieces and their interactions representing their positions; when a piece has the potential to take another piece, this is echoed in the story with one character being under threat from another, and when a piece is taken, the corresponding character is "taken out of the game" by death or imprisonment.
  • The novel Ella Minnow Pea is about a fictional nation where the founder's statue has the phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". As a storm keeps damaging the letters, it's taken as a sign that they should be forbidden, and the text accordingly stops using each letter as it's banned.
  • In-universe, the Ellery Queen novel The Origin of Evil has a threatening note written in bizarre, tortured syntax. This turns out to be because the typewriter it was written on was, at the time, missing its "E" key, which is an important clue.
  • The Dick and Jane series of beginning reader books limited its vocabulary to a word list chosen for each educational level. Especially in earlier volumes, this resulted in very stilted, repetitive prose. Nonetheless, they were popular for a generation of students until they were supplanted by the much more entertaining Dr. Seuss volumes above.
  • Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe explains a variety of technical topics using only the 1000 commonest words in English.
  • Italo Calvino had a penchant for it, for example "Il castello dei destini incrociati" was done with a playing card set.
  • German author Tobias Meissner did a somewhat more modern version of the same in "Paradise of Swords" (a fantasy fight knock-out tournament), done with a role-playing game system to define the outcomes of the fights. Feels a bit like wrestling.
  • "Oh Cello voll Echo" by Herbert Pfeiffer has, you already spotted it, palindrome poems. And this is much harder to pull of in German. In "Plaudere, du Alp!" he even manages a long rant against fascism.

  • Eminem:
    • His Artist Disillusionment song "The Way I Am" is written in anapestic tetrameter, contributing to the claustrophobic feel of the song. (Apart from the hook.)
    • Encore:
      • People often remark on Eminem's reduced lyricism on Encore, but this was due in part to him challenging himself to freestyle his work rather than use his usual method of obsessively hashing out his lyrics on paper. (He was jealous of several contemporaries who could do this, in particular Jay-Z and his signee Ca$his. Also, he was struggling to write due to being on a lot of drugs.)
      • Every line of Em's verse on "Never Enough" ends with the same rhyme couplet - ay-ee (as in crazy).
    • Relapse:
      • Eminem's idea behind using a mysterious accent to play Slim Shady on this album was to force him out of his comfort zone when writing rhymes - it prevented him from using go-to rhymes that would work in his own accent, but also allowed him to rhyme things that he normally wouldn't be able to. It also works as a Shifting Voice of Madness for the incarnation of the character.
      • Eminem also went out of his way to choose the most rhythmically weird beats he was offered, and to try and ride them perfectly with his writing, resulting in some pretty bizarre meters and flows. The weirdness of Rape Leads to Insanity song "Insane" is based on writing exactly to its percussion fills and vamping Scare Chord at the end of every measure. Even the album's comedy single "We Made You" is built on a weird Stop and Go burlesque swing beat which Eminem raps across in a deliberately wonky rhythm, and "Underground" is in Uncommon Time.
      • The second verse in "Stay Wide Awake", which describes a rape, maintains an identical rhyme scheme and meter for 14 lines in order to reinforce the forced nature of the crime. (e.g. "She's naked, see, no privacy, but I can see she wants me / so patient, see, I try to be, but gee, why does she taunt me?...")
    • "Legacy" was written as a "nerdy" attempt to make a song which keeps to the same set of rhyming vowels for the entire duration (again, apart from the hook). The sounds used are [aɪ] ("sidewalk"), [ɔː] ("awesome") and [ɪn] ("cryin'").

  • In Wonderful Town, Ruth says that the letter "W" fell off her typewriter after she wrote her thesis on Walt Whitman, making herself "the only author who never uses a 'w.'"

    Video Games 
  • Ad Verbum is an Interactive Fiction game built around Constrained Writing, as the protagonist explores a wizard's mansion where each room has some kind of linguistic constraint that is reflected in the description of the room — and in the commands that the game will accept within that room. All the rooms on the initial floor are constrained to be alliterative. Rooms on higher floors have more elaborate constraints, such as that old favorite, "Abandon all fifth orthographic glyphs". As a Shout-Out, one of the rooms is a library whose contents include a readable copy of Robert Pinsky's constrained poem "ABC" and an empty dust-jacket from a disappeared copy of A Void.

  • xkcd
  • In Dungeons and Dragons, "Sending" is a spell that lets you send a message of up to 25 words. In The Order of the Stick, every use of Sending is exactly 25 words.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: Multiple In-Universe examples.
    • In "Guess Who's Coming To Criticize Dinner?", when Homer becomes a food critic, he writes a review without using the letter E. That's because the E key on his typewriter is broken. Somehow, he managed to write "Screw Flanders" over and over (perhaps written as "Scroo Flandurs").
    • In "Burns' Heir", Mr Burns tells Lenny that he will be fired unless he is able to explain why he shouldn't be without using the letter E.
    Lenny: Uh, I'm a... good... work... guy...
    Burns: You're fired.
    Lenny: But I didn't say...
    Burns: You will. [pushes trapdoor button]
    Lenny [falling]: EEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Alternative Title(s): Oulipo, Lipogram