Boundaries and creativity 2 – building better genre conventions

No sooner had I posted about boundaries and creativity than I found this excellent article by Richard Rosenbaum on game-changing use of genre conventions. It sharpened my understanding of how boundaries lead to new boundaries, and thus not only support but drive creativity.

Genre conventions are among the most important creative boundaries. They let you know what your audience expects, and so are important in satisfying your audience. They are shortcuts for audience understanding – if your genre has a convention that orange women are always villains, then your audience gains a lot of information just from you saying ‘she was orange’.

This also applies to conventions of your medium, for example the use of chapter breaks and brightly coloured covers in printed novels, or particular edits in film.

The flawed hero - going past convention into compulsory
The flawed hero – going past convention into compulsory

Rosenbaum’s article discusses genre conventions used in unusual ways to create great storytelling. The examples he uses – primarily an episode of House and the film The Cabin In The Woods – don’t break the conventions of their genre and medium, but instead explore them, working out their logical implications or applying them in new ways. This creates new rules – in the House case the appearance of memory gaps at particular points, in Cabin a meta-narrative about the nature of horror films – that others can play with. New boundaries and structures emerge not by breaking the old rules, but by following them in a way no-one has before.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.
Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

This doesn’t just apply to story-telling. Nick responded to my last post by saying that the benefits of boundaries apply in design work. And following rules to create new ones applies there too. Manned flight started out pretty crudely, but with a series of boundaries, rules for what would make a flying machine. By following those rules, and trying out different ways of following them, engineers refined them and varied them, discovering even better ways to build a flying machine. Sure, we still don’t have our Marty McFly hoverboards, but we’ve moved on a long way from the Wright Brothers.

Wilbur Wright's propeller design was inspired by his brother's moustahce
Wilbur Wright’s propeller design was inspired by his brother’s moustahce

Boundaries aren’t just structures that support creativity. A lot of the time they are creativity. They are the structures we create, within our stories, our genres, our world, that allow us to create greater things. Through those boundaries, creativity becomes self-perpetuating.


Or does it? Let me know what you think below, whether it’s about boundaries, creativity, or The Cabin In The Woods – seriously, I could talk about that film all day.

Overthinking it?

I love thinking about society and culture. There’s nothing I won’t analyse and discuss, from the Hunger Games to the state of modern education. Thinking in itself is a pleasure. But I’ve recently realised that this sort of analysis can work in two different ways, and mixing them up can cause problems. So today’s the flip-side of my last blog post – today’s all about thinking.

My friend John recently introduced me to the joys of Overthinking It, the website that ‘subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve’. I love their tongue in cheek analysis of such apparently shallow subjects as Taylor Swift’s 22. This is thinking as play, kicking ideas around to see what happens. Insincere fun.


Then there’s the sincere analysis. The most obvious example around culture is the way that feminist writers discuss the impact of, for example, a Disney doll. But this also covers topics such as the themes and characters in Game of Thrones. It can just be academic, but it can be about issues with real social impact.

The line between the two is often blurred. Cracked’s After Hours videos, my favourite examples of this kind of thinking, deliberately veer back and forth between plausible analysis and absurdity. This makes the absurd even more entertaining, and the critical analysis more accessible. But in doing so it can make significant points seem absurd and open valid arguments to attack as just ‘overthinking it’.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mix up the two – far from it. But next time a piece of analysis seems to stretch the bounds of plausibility, think to yourself – is this sincere, playful, or both? Can just part of it matter?