7 Examples of Constrained Writing

Constrained writing has drawn both glowing support and vehement opposition. Some claim it to be an evocative demonstration of the notion that less is more. Others see it as a cheap parlor trick that limits expression and creates a screen for hack writers to hide behind. In any case, it became a recognized literary movement (‘The Oulipo Movement’) in 1960s France, and has generated many interesting (albeit quirky) works.

Based on principles similar to those that define math, engineering, and games like chess, constrained writing is any literature in which the author self-imposes a strict linguistic constraint. Here are the seven most notable examples.

1. Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright

This 50,000-word novel is completely devoid of the letter ‘E,’ the most common letter in the English language. Incredibly, it is a lucid and unhalting story, which is seen by many as the most ambitious example of constrained writing in English.

2. Le Train de Nulle Part (‘The Train From Nowhere’) by Michel Thaler

This impressive 233-page novel, written in 2004 by a French doctor and admirer of the surreal, does not contain a single verb. In fact, the eccentric author even went so far as to arrange a mock funeral ceremony for The Verb in Paris. It was reputedly well attended.

3. Never Again by Doug Nufer

True to its title, no word is repeated in this nearly 200-page long story about a remorseful gambler seeking to escape his past mistakes by obsessively striving to never reenact them. Despite matching form to content, this book certainly can’t be accused of redundancy. When asked if they plan to reread it, however, many responded: never again.

4. Les Revenentes by George Perec

The French author of this 1972 novel was a member of the Oulipo movement, and has 4 more E’s in his name than can be found in his fourth novel, La Disparition. In Les Revenentes, however, he took the opposite route and never used any vowel, except E.

5. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

By far the most well-known book on our list, Green Eggs and Ham only uses 50 words throughout the entire story.

6. Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

In this very intricate example of constrained writing, the first chapter is completely alliterative, using only words beginning in A. The second chapter uses words beginning in A and B, the third uses A, B, and C words, and so on. After the twenty-fifth chapter, letters begin to be subtracted again, and the last chapter, like the first, only uses A words.

7. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Though many would claim this isn’t a true example of constrained writing, it is certainly terse. The novel’s aesthetic is defined by thousands of simple sentences and words. Commas and compound sentences are few and far between. Multisyllabic words are a rarity.

This list only includes novels, but constrained writing is also a defining characteristic of most poetry. Rhyme schemes, stanza regularity, and fixed-length lines are all examples of constraint. Somewhat counter-intuitively, by imposing a fixed form on their language, poets and writers hope to expand their creative possibilities. These seven examples are proof that creativity can blossom, even when given limitations.

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