Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Like Piecing Together a Puzzle

Writing a story--any story--is like piecing together a puzzle. I dabbled in journalism a while back, and one of the things I loved about writing articles was viewing them as puzzles. Each of the elements--the quotes, the facts, the background research--was a puzzle piece. All I had to do was fit them together to form a compelling story. It's the greatest feeling when all your work finally fits so seamlessly together. There's lots of fun in getting there too.

Writing fiction is a lot like that. The elements may be different, but the hunt for that finished puzzle is the same. The outline of your story--should you choose to do one--is like when you first open that puzzle box and dump all the pieces onto the floor. You survey all the pieces and get a good look at what you're dealing with. Once that's done, you sit at your computer and start piecing it together, keystroke by keystroke.

The way we usually do puzzles is by identifying different areas of the puzzle, and the similar pieces that link together in each area. For example, when we were kids we looked for the blue pieces of the sky or the red pieces of a barn. Here are a few of the areas you should identify when it comes to the puzzle that is your project.   

The Beginning

The first--and arguably most important--pieces fit into place here. This is where you have to know the point in your story where the actions start. A rule of thumb (not coined by me!) is to "start the story as close as possible to the end." Basically this means: don't waste time. Start fast and keep the story moving so you keep your readers turning the page. Without this key piece of the puzzle, you may be lost before you even began. 

Character Wants

Once you've started your puzzle, this is where it begins to take shape. Always ask yourself: what does my character want? What are his or her intentions? These pieces are what drive the plot of your story. They are the pieces that the readers latch onto in order to follow along. When you've fit them together, it is smooth sailing.  A good character sketch should get you on the right track. Those pieces are key to fitting together the pieces of the next section of the puzzle.

Obstacles and Achievements

So, if you know what your character wants, you can piece together his or her character arc. The rising action of the story is usually a series of obstacles and achievements. How your character overcomes each obstacle is determined by what he or she wants. For example, if your heroine is on a course to rescue her true love who has been kidnapped by a psychotic human-gargoyle hybrid, she might stop at nothing to save him, including putting her own life on the line. It's your job to set up the stumbling blocks and then use your character's motives and desires to have her make decisions that get her closer to where she wants to be (or even have her tragically fail).


These are those tricky pieces that you very much want to fit somewhere, but on the surface they just don't seem to have a place. It takes a lot of skill and patience to make these pieces fit. Pay careful attention to these pieces because they can either turn your puzzle into a masterpiece or a muddled mess. On the other hand, don't spend too much time of them, because it is your main pieces that need the most focus.

Climax and Resolution

These are likely the pieces you've had set aside from the very beginning. You know where they go. You've known all along what they look like down to the very last line. These pieces should fit easily into place, but be careful: it's easy to get lazy here, to just jam them in the last remaining open spots. You're exhausted. The end is in sight. But don't give this part of the puzzle any less focus. Take great care to make sure your climax and ending are the best they can be, that they do actually fit. After the climax things tend to cool down and the story's theme or message comes full circle. It's when you answer the question: what was everything for? Your character should reflect back on the events of the novel and the reader should take something memorable from that. Don't make this part too abrupt, but don't draw it out for too long. You'll know when it feels right and when it doesn't. When it's finally done right, it's all the more satisfying when you can stand up and say, "Wow, what a great looking puzzle!"

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