Being a Better Writer: Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces

Welcome back, readers, to a Monday post that’s actually on a Monday! BaBW is back to its proper day once more! So, to commemorate the occasion, what’s today’s writing topic?

Puzzle pieces.

I can see the curious, questioning looks even from here in the past, so let me explain a little further.

One of the questions I get asked from readers—especially those who are about to make the transition to new writers—is how I’m able to fill my books with such complicated plots and keep everything moving at a steady pace at the same time.

This is a legitimate question. I want to stress that up front. As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.

But, that aside, point is, most young writers see a full, complex story and wonder how on earth an author was ever able to keep everything straight. Crud, some don’t. Read through a Sci-Fi book the other day (giving an author I’d read before another shot because the premise of the book was very unique, even if I’d been disappointed in an earlier work of theirs) where the author didn’t dole out their complex story well—at all. Here’s how it ending up playing out: You got the opening chapters, introducing the characters, and giving you roughly 80% of the information you needed to know for the conclusion of the story. Then, following that was most of the book, roughly two dozen chapters of the characters just making their way to the conclusion while talking but never really doing much for the story other than “We go from here to the their, this ending is stressful.” Near the end of that bit, which was most of the book and pretty dull, we got another 10%, and then the conclusion happened almost immediately, bringing with it the last 10%.

Do you see the problem? The book had a great premise and an interesting idea, but the author didn’t know how to dole the information out. The result was a massive dump of exposition at the beginning, and a small one at the end with the final bits the reader needed … and then everything in-between was just sort of  … there. It could have been summed up in two or three chapters rather than twenty.

Or the story could have doled out its puzzle pieces better, distributed them evenly across those intervening  chapters, and given them some purpose to the overall plot (as opposed to the “And we’re traveling … and we’re traveling … and we’re traveling …” that the story became). Something that would have given them impact on the story, rather than just being happenstance.

Right, so that’s the second time (not counting the title) that I’ve used that term, so it’s high time I explained what I mean when I write it.

Simply put, for those who are looking to build a complex plot, it may help to think of the core components of that plot as pieces in a gigantic puzzle. Literally. I’m talking about the little bits of odd-edged cardboard with picture portions printed on them.

Why? Because in a real puzzle, pieces are doled out to the one putting it together. They get a piece here, a piece there, and then attempt to make it all fit together. As they collect more pieces and successfully begin to piece them together, a picture takes shape—a slender foot here, a claw there, a chest of coins … and before long, they begin to see the whole picture. New pieces, rather than being place randomly, are examined, thought about, and then placed in the most likely position to belong, even if the pieces directly around it are not evident.

In writing, the author is doing the same thing. They give the reader pieces, little touches of information, doling them out so that the reader can build a clear picture of what’s going on. They help the reader build a puzzle … but unlike a typical puzzle, where all the pieces are dumped out on the table beforehand, here the author passes them over one by one, or in small clumps, to the reader in an order than they’ve determined to help shape the image that the reader puts together.

Take, for example, the pieces I have you above. A chest of coins, a claw, and a foot. Most of you, upon reading those words, had a mental picture of some kind take shape involving those three elements. Now, by doling out a few more, I can influence that picture all the more. Let’s see … a dress, more coins, treasure, a scaly tail, cave walls, a maw full of sharp teeth, a woman’s eyes open wide with surprise, a scaly wing … what’s that image looking like now? Many of you are probably picturing the classic image of a dragon and a captured princess, right?

Gotcha. Let’s drop the last few pieces. A table. A tea set. Smoke rings. A bright smile of enjoyment. A cup of tea clutching in a clawed paw.

Did that image just switch gears? That’s because the final puzzle pieces gave you context needed to understand the prior ones. It’s not a captured princess (in fact, she’s barefoot from the earliest pieces), it’s a woman enjoying tea with her dragon friend.

Now, part of what you just read above comes down to context, obviously, and I’ve written a bit on that before when I spoke about The Art of Misdirection. But do you see how the puzzle pieces I doled out built a picture, a picture that changed and adapted, blanks filling in as you acquired new pieces? Building a complicated plot (or a complete one) isn’t much different from putting a puzzle together. The largest difference, however?

You’re the one making the pieces. And that gives you, the writer, a lot of creative power and responsibility. So then, how do you take up this responsibility?

Start by figuring out what the complete “picture” of your story is. Where it will be by the end, what direction the plot will take? Build that “picture” in your mind, making sure to highlight and flag the most important bits, the ones that are really critical to everything (or, if you’re having trouble visualizing this, consider making a list on paper you can keep track of).

Now? Cut it all apart into a bunch of smaller pieces, pieces you can feed to the reader like breadcrumbs to a duck (or an ornery goose, depending on the reader). Now that you have those pieces that make up the plot of your story, take a look at each one of them. Like a real puzzle, each piece will have edges that will or won’t fit with other edges. Or some that will look like they fit with other pieces, appearing to until a third piece comes along and draws a distinction between the two.

These edges will be part of what shapes your reader’s perception of things. Two pieces presented next to one another, despite being from opposite sides of the puzzle, may appear to be close to one another near the start (there’s that misdirection capacity again). Which means that you’ll need to look at your pieces to see which edges line up and how, and then consider when to dole some combinations of pieces out to the reader?

Right, let’s clarify this with an example. Let’s say we’re writing a crime thriller in which the main character is trying to track down a large sum of money that vanished from someone’s account somewhere. So there’s the first—and central—puzzle piece: Money. Now say there are two other core elements to the story. The one is an individual who engages in industrial espionage, the other an expensive prototype camera (why not?). Now, with just the presentation of those three elements, what “edges” can you see tying them together? How would the order in which they were given to the reader change the reader’s mental picture of what’s going on?”

Of course, we’re not going to only have three puzzle pieces unless we want a fairly simple, straightforward story, more suitable for a shorter work of fiction. So if we want to expand, we need more puzzle pieces … which can be everything from clues in a murder mystery to bits and pieces of a character (Ever read a book where you learn about the character over the course of the story rather than all at once? The author has cut them into “pieces” and is divying them out as the story progresses until you have the full picture). Really, whatever your story needs. This can be ten puzzle pieces, or it can be several dozen.

Now, again, I’ll point out that not all puzzle pieces are created equally. Some are small. Some are large. Some are going to have vague hints, while others will have defining bits and pieces to them that the entire story will hinge on. Pay attention to these differences as you’re figuring out your puzzle pieces, because when and where you give them to the reader will shape the story.

Now, is that all there is to this? Of course not. Simply using this visual metaphor to figure out when and where to dole out the elements of the plot to the reader isn’t automatically going to help you create a great story. You still need to weave these elements together, and experience  is the best teacher with both that and figuring out what goes where.

But this method can help with getting to that point, and with avoiding making some plotting mistakes. Look at the story you want to write, figure out what each “piece” is and where you want to place them. Where will they work? If it helps, list them and draw connecting lines between them. Then sit down and start writing your story out. Play out your puzzle pieces for your reader and let the plot take shape. A few may shift here and there as you fill in the details, but with a little luck and some hard work, you’ll soon find that the complex plot with all its interwoven details is maybe, just maybe, working out pretty well, and isn’t so complex after all.

Now, if you’re still having issues, there’s one last suggestion I would make: Pay attention to what puzzle pieces you place and make your own estimations of what sort of edges they’ll line up with. Every so often think like a reader—or try to, anyway. Keep in mind as, or perhaps before, you place a puzzle piece what sort of connections it will draw to the ones you’ve already laid out … both from your perspective and the reader’s. The reader, don’t forget, will see things differently than you will. They will not have the completed picture in their head the first time, while you do, so don’t forget to look at the pieces you’ve doled out from the perspective of not having and not knowing what the rest of the pieces will be. Check what edges will line up so that you can keep track of what some readers will assume about the plot (and therefore, keep things tidy when breaking that assumption later).

So, there you have it. The puzzle method of figuring out plots and divvying the information out throughout your story. If you’re at an impasse trying to figure out how to write a story that seems very complicated, give it a try. I hope it works for you.

Good luck, and I’ll see you next week.


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