How Do Limitations Affect Storytelling?

One very important aspect of storytelling is the number of limitations that are set on the universe. More often than not, the limitations are fairly similar to those of our own universe as soap operas, sitcoms and most dramas are designed to feel as if they are set within our own world. That is not always the case though and there is a multitude of shows that set their own rules. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how exaggerated the story can become and the overall ridiculousness of the plot. For the most part, novels have a different set of rules when it comes to limitations, due to the fact that the story can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. Depending on your opinion, film and TV can be scattered with metaphors, up for different interpretations but the difference is that there is visual evidence of at least some or all of the story and its setting. Video games are an entirely different kettle of fish and even when they do set their own limitations, they often let them slip by with glitches and bugs that defy any laws set by the creators. So for the main part, this article will be focussing on limitations set in television and movies.

The obvious examples of tele-lands void of limits are cartoons. Now if you want to be contrary, you can say that everything has its limits, even cartoons but the difference here is that often cartoons don’t ever set out to explain the workings of their universe. Characters will die multiple times, sit on water spouts and their eyes will pop right out of their head in place of other signs of arousal. These kinds of mechanisms are fun to play around with every now and then and I’m sure they would have been mind-blowing in the beginning. However, that was a long time ago now and the amount of animated stories is so vast that it may even make your own eyes pop out of their head. Subtler cartoons of course exist and the reigning champ of playing around with limitations is Futurama. To begin with, Futurama is set within an animated version of our own universe but then with the help of time travel, the writers introduce a whole new, very different set of cartoony freedom. Where in other cartoons, a character could be crushed by a 10 tonne weight and get up and walk away unharmed, if a little squashed, on Futurama the character would very much be dead but can be revived with the help of future technology.


Outside of cartoons, the boundaries of live action are still very sparse. One such genre that is a little closer to that of a cartoon is comedy. With the promise of a laugh, audiences are prepared to put up with more ridiculous concepts than they would on a dramatic show. Still the rules vary from show to show. The Mighty Boosh has very different rules than that of Arrested Development and again both are very different from the set of rules on Friends. The Mighty Boosh is the perfect example of anything goes, while Arrested Development has developed its own, very niche slice of absurdity. Friends, on the other hand is quite firmly rooted in reality except for the dubios fact that none of those people could afford to live in an apartment like that. Really when it comes down to it, the set of limitations set on a comedy are not greatly important to the audience and people are not going to get annoyed if a character defies the laws of gravity like they would in say, Breaking Bad.

Drama is a very broad term for the rest of the visual entertainment there is to offer but for the most part, limitations are quite important to these kinds of stories. It can be very annoying when the tech genius on CSI has some amazing technology that can zoom into a computer generated image made up of pixels, when they seem to be masquerading their world as our own. Unless the rules are the same to the ones that have an influence on our everyday lives, then it is very important for a drama show to explain their own. If it is for the good of the story, then it is ok for a bigger explosion than would be possible every now and then but don’t ever step on your own toes. My main example being that of Kill The Moon, an episode of Doctor Who that seemed to laugh in the face of its own laws of physics, which happen to be very similar to our own. Generally sci-fi is an excuse to through the rule book out of the spaceship but there should always be limits, otherwise every piece of drama on the show loses its tension.


Of course there are other sets of limitations, such as run time and budget. Movies don’t specifically have a set run time, yet unless you are Peter Jackson, you aren’t going to make your movie run more than three hours. So in that regard, films have the upper hand over television until you start to take episodic story-arcs into consideration. Budget again can affect a film or TV show but if you have the right script and the right crew, most films and shows can make it through to the release date, hard work and creativity is the key. Essentially, the point of this article is to remind you that you should always know your limits. There is a lot of different ingredients in the big, black pot of storytelling and no matter how tempted you are, sometimes it isn’t the best idea to add that extra bit of sugar. Once the right balance is found, expanded limitations can only add to the enjoyment of a story but it is still very important to keep to the rules that have been set from the beginning. Phew, one thousand and thirteen words, well that’s my limit.

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