A common phrase that’s bandied about is “think outside the box,” meaning to not think in the same manner as everyone else, but to come up with new ideas and approaches that are unique. That’s a great philosophy, even if it’s somewhat impractical in the case of storytelling.
The classic story structure is three acts–beginning, middle, and end. There are variations on this (split Act 2 into two sections so you have four acts; the Shakespearean five-act structure; a seven-act television episode layout), but even with films like Memento and Pulp Fiction that flaunt its nonlinear-ness, we still have a beginning, middle, and end.
Furthermore, it’s been said that all stories ever told can be boiled down into seven basic plots. If you pay attention to Hollywood, it would seem there are far less than that. On that topic, screenwriting is highly structured to the point where studio execs expect certain plot points to fall on specific page numbers. How in the world can there be creativity in that?
Other than creative writing teachers who encourage free-form expression, most people expect a certain structure or format to their stories. We as an audience are conditioned to anticipate various elements depending on the genre, despite the claims that we want originality. What else would explain the glut of sequels and remakes in the multiplexes instead of original content people always claim to want yet rarely embrace with their wallets?
No matter what format we work in, writers have to be conscious of many restrictions placed on them that may seem to stifle out creative juices. We are forced inside that box.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
When you are given free reign, it’s easy to become self-indulgent. Look at filmmakers who start off with genius little films, but then are given unlimited budgets and then produce mediocrity.
Working within restrictions forces you to think and to be more creative. A blank canvass offers endless possibilities, but quite often the artist doesn’t even know where to begin. But to say that he can only use a particular pallet, or paint within a specific size frame, or use a certain subject and suddenly the artist has to use these limitations to his advantage.
In other words, you have to make it work. You can use the walls of the box as the framework for your story, the space inside as the scope of the world, the lid as the doorway to the possibilities beyond.
You can take a formula, for instance, and twist it around so that it now seems fresh rather than telling the same story people have grown tired of hearing. Familiar beats can contain unexpected melodies. Tired tropes can be reinvigorated by mixing in new elements.
Think outside the box by working within that very container.