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.


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.


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.


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.

The Lungs of the Earth

Trees, or better, forests, are known as the lungs of the earth.

Not only do their leaves produce oxygen, but their trunks and branches are made of carbon extracted from the air. Until burned, this noxious carbon is stored as wood fibres and strong timber.

How fascinating that we living mammals breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, not only by exhaling, but by burning fuel for cooking, heating and transportation! What a marvellous relationship!

Estimates show that one person in a developed country needs to plant 150 trees every year, the trees of which must each live for 25+ years to offset their lifetime carbon emissions.


What interests me is that the stuff of narrative is tension, crisis and conflict. It is from this crisis, the characters or heroes gain their agency, their mission, their adventure, journey, and eventual self discovery. From crisis comes catharsis – and in this story gives us satisfaction.

The crisis and tension alone is noxious and stressful, but woven into story it becomes the strong wood fibres and timber architecture of a tale.

lungs 2

British 19th century author G. K. Chesterton wrote:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.

I propose then that stories are the lungs of the soul, as trees are the lungs of the earth.

Their food is the noxious tensions and crises of life. They architect their strong trunks and boughs from the stuff of bogeys, fears and fights. And they give out life giving atmosphere of catharsis, resolution, and redemption.

lungs 3

I wonder how many stories each person needs to tell or share to offset our heart and soul’s noxious fumes.

Many I imagine !