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Robert McKee’s “Principle of Creative Limitation,” Stays Inside the Box

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Estimated reading time: 13 minute(s)

Out of the box thinking.

How often have you heard that? It’s overused. Trite. Cliched. Boring.  It’s  been boring since the 90′s. A terrible trope. What does it mean? It’s supposed to connote creative thinking. To see things differently. Create new ideas and new ways to solve problems. And not be boring. But it is boring. It seems to apply to almost every problem people haven’t figured out. If you really had some out of the box thinking going on you’d never use the phrase, out of the box – at least not to anyone able to fog a mirror. Here’s some thinking that comes from inside the box. Really inside.


I interviewed Robert McKee, the best-selling author of “STORY” and legendary guru of Hollywood storytelling, several years ago. Robert is is the most widely known and respected screenwriting lecturer in the world today. His STORY Seminar has been taught to over 55,000 screenwriters, filmmakers, TV writers, novelists, industry executives, actors, producers, directors and playwrights. But, teaching is easy. Results are hard.  Robert McKee’s STORY and the stories delivered by his students have garnered;

  • 35 Academy Awards (165+ Nominations)
  • 170 + Emmy Awards (500 + Nominations)
  • 30 + WGA Awards (180 + Nominations)
  • 25 +DGA Award (50+ Nominations), Pulitzer Prizes & Whitbread Prizes

His former students’ accomplishments are unparalleled. Stories written, directed, or produced by students of Robert McKee include:

“Iron Man,” “Angels & Demons,” “WALL•E,” “Lord of the Rings I, II, III,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Desperate Housewives”, “CSI, Law & Order,” “Cinderella Man”, “Gates of Fire” (novel), “The Daily Show,” Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Simpsons Movie,” “The DaVinci Code,” “Cars”,” Shrek.” “X-Men 3,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ratatouille”,”Finding Nemo,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “The Last Mimzy,” “Bobby,” “Quantum of Solace,” “The Color Purple,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Deer Hunter,” “The Elephant Man,” “ER,” “Forrest Gump,” “Gandhi,” “M*A*S*H,” “On Golden Pond,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “The X-Files,” “A Time to Kill,” “Toy Story I and II,” and more.

Robert McKee knows STORY. He wrote the book. And there is no STORY without creativity. But what he says about creativity is extraordinary. It’s his “Principle of Creative Limitation.” And it stays inside the box. Makes it smaller. Makes it tougher.


In our interview we were talking in context of the Complex Sale. Creatively telling your story, or your company’s story, in a large business sale (over $150,000) presentation – where PowerPoint is the box.


Could you talk about “The Principle of Creative Limitation?”

ROBERT McKee(RM): It’s exactly the subject we’re talking about. The PowerPoint presentation is easy, that’s why people do it. Creative limitation means instead of doing something the easy way, you do it the hard way. You take a method that is much more difficult to accomplish. As a result in your struggle as a salesman to accomplish the presentation in the form of a story, you are forcing yourself to be creative.

The more difficult you make it for yourself, the more brilliant the solutions you will have to come up with or you fail. And when you come up with brilliant creative solutions to the presentation, the results for the people, for the audience, are stunning.

RM: The principle of creative limitation forces you to do it the hard way. Story is more difficult than PowerPoint there is no question. You have to have a real talent for this and you have to do it really well or you will look like a fool.

Steve: So … limit yourself.  Don’t go out of the box –  make the box smaller?

RM:Yes. That is why people avoid it, because they;

  • Don’t have the talent
  • Don’t do the research
  • Don’t have the knowledge,
  • Don’t know how to present creative ideas  in a living, breathing way.

Why is whistling not a Beethoven symphony? Because whistling is easy. A Beethoven symphony is hard. But when you take on the challenge of writing a symphony, the creative solutions are amazing, overwhelming. Whistling is something you can do on the street. The more difficult the technique, the more brilliant the solution. Another analogy … golf is more difficult than ping-pong. It’s not that ping-pong isn’t good, it’s a lot of fun and at the highest levels, it’s wonderful. But ping-pongers are not Tiger Woods, Why? Because the golf swing is infinitely more difficult than hitting a ping-pong ball. Touch football is not tackle.

When you make things easy, the results are boring. When you make things difficult the creative solutions, the concentration, the practice, and the work that has to go into it, forces you to be creative. The results are all the more stunning.


Challenge yourself. Do you want to be a whistler … or a Beethoven? Forget the box. If you are in a box, make it smaller. You will find creativity there.


For more information on STORY and the art of storytelling, visit the Robert McKee website Feature Flickr image courtesy of deichgnu -LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved

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