Six impossible things

Jigsaw puzzles and Tinker Toys

Sometimes it seems that there are a zillion different metaphors for how writers construct a plot. There’s the sculpture metaphor (carve away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant). There’s the pottery-making metaphor (add a lump of clay, work it until you have the center, then shape and add more clay as and where needed). There’s the jewelry metaphor (like stringing different colored beads in a pleasing pattern) and the quilt-making metaphor (combining small scraps of different-colored cloth to make a large pattern). There’s the soup-making metaphor (see what you have in the fridge and start popping things in a pot to cook; season to taste).

The metaphor that I’ve run into most often – and the one that’s been most descriptive of the way I usually work – is the jigsaw puzzle metaphor. You have all these pieces with parts of a picture on them, and each one goes in only one place. It doesn’t matter whether you put the edges together first and then fill in the middle, or do the barn first and then work out to the edges; all that matters is that the pieces are in the right place when you are finished.

The thing is, with a jigsaw puzzle, you usually have at least some idea what the finished picture is going to look like, even if it’s one of those horrible ones that’s a shiny lipstick red all over, so that you have to go strictly by the shape of the pieces to get the puzzle done. Even if the cover of the box has gone missing, you can usually get an idea of what the puzzle is going to be by looking at the pieces to see if there are lots of light blue ones (sky, so probably an outdoor scene) or things that look like bits of people or rugs.

The longer I work at writing, the more I seem to gravitate toward stories that don’t come with that sort of template. They aren’t jigsaw puzzles; they’re more like Tinker Toys or Legos or an Erector Set. In other words, what the story and/or plot will be like is totally open. I have all these pieces and connectors, but what I make of them is entirely up to me. They don’t provide hints. I have to decide for myself whether I want to put them together as a giraffe, a castle, or a model of the space station.

For somebody who is used to putting jigsaw puzzles together, this kind of thing can be hard to recognize, let alone start making decisions about. My first clue is usually that I have an enormous heap of bright shiny bits and pieces (a few of which I absolutely know go into the story somewhere, but most of which I am equally positive are mutually exclusive options) that I can’t make fit with each other.

At this point, what I do is take inventory. I make lists. Lots of lists, that sort all the different bits and pieces in as many ways as I can think of. There’s the list of all the characters by family and social rank; then there’s the list of the characters by political affiliation, and another that lists them according to where each of them works and for whom, and one that shows how much each character likes or dislikes the other characters they know at the start of the story. There’s a list of places and what goes on (in general) in each of them. There’s a list of events and incidents (Bertrand runs away; Xavier is kidnapped; Max argues with Uncle Jean; apprentice gets blown through the salon door) that could happen in the story, before the story, or after the story. There’s a timeline with the things I know are nailed down in one color, and several other timelines with the things I am still dithering about in other colors, sometimes with arrows showing how they could all change places.

What I’m doing with all this is attempting to get a feel for some of the different stories I could be telling with the material I have. Once I have things sorted, it is usually pretty easy to tell that I don’t have enough parts to build a castle. Or that I have enough pieces to make something shaped like a giraffe, but all of them are bright blue or grass-green. So I can build a green-and-blue patterned castle wall (but I’ll need a lot more pieces to finish it) or I can build something that’s giraffe-shaped, but blue with green splotches instead of tan with dark brown splotches. Or I can build a garden with a pond…

The trick with this is not to fixate on something too soon. I don’t like the blue giraffe idea (though under other circumstances it might be great), and the green-and-blue castle wall doesn’t do it, but the garden-and-pond has possibilities…and thinking about that, I realize that I can do a green castle wall with a blue moat, and that clicks. I still don’t have the whole picture, but I have somewhere to start.

Next, I look at ways different spools could connect to each other. Tinker Toys have lots of options; there isn’t just one way they fit together, so if you don’t really know what you’re making, you have to look at as many possibilities as you can think of until you find one that clicks.

The things that connect one scenelet, event, character, or bit of information to another can be time (A happens before C which happens before B), character (X planned both A and B, and accidentally ended up doing C as well), place (B and D both happen in the market square; A and C both happen near the docks), motivation (X, Y, Z, and Q are all trying to get their hands on the MacGuffin in order to become rich/powerful), relationships (Q and Y are siblings; S and T are cousins; Z works for X), emotions (Q and S hate each other; Q and X are both in love with Z; Y has a phobia about drowning so she avoids the docks), past events (J saved S’s life ten years ago); and so on…pretty much anything I can think of that can (not does, I’m not to that stage yet) link and cross-link the various things I’ve come up with.

As I go through this process, other potential connections start occurring to me. I already knew that J saved S’s life ten years ago…but what if he did it because X maneuvered him into it? Or what if some of them went to the same school, or had the same tutor? What if X has known about the MacGuffin all along, and has been grooming all these people for years to go get it for him? Whatever I think of, I add to my lists and diagrams, whether it’s a connection rod or a new spool.

At some point, I start eliminating possibilities. I generally begin with the ones I think are too obvious or over-done – if X is the villain, he is not going to turn out to be my heroine’s long-presumed-dead father, nor is one of her two potential romantic interests conveniently going to turn out to be a close relative in order to take him out of the running. Also, nobody is going to be dropping a ring, sword, belt, or anything else into a volcano.

Because I have enjoyed playing with colored pencils and Post-It-Notes since I was very small, I often get to a point where I start making diagrams and/or doing a Post-It layout where I put one event/incident/scene/important-node on each Post-It and then lay them out on the table and shuffle them around, adding and subtracting until I have something that flows. There are always leftover Post-Its, meaning there are always events or incidents or scenes that I made up that just don’t fit in whatever the eventual plot turns out to be. This used to bother me, until I decided that a) I could always save them for another story and b) it is better to have a run of twenty Post-Its that really looks and feels right than it is to have twenty-five that seem lumpy in places.

Running through all this gives me a sense of what I have to build a story with, what kind(s) of story I can build (and what kinds are really impossible, given the material I’m starting with), and what events/incidents/characters/backstory I may still be missing. And if I don’t start coming up with something plot-like enough to start writing after three or four rounds of list-making, diagrams, adding and subtracting ideas, and rearranging Post-Its, I’d figure it really isn’t ready to write and move on to something else. So far, it’s never come to that for me.

  1. Wow! Thanks for describing your work process so thoroughly. I’m still at the beginning of my own writing career, with relatively little experience under my belt. But I trust your assessment that sooner or later, the process I use won’t work, or won’t work for a particular project, and then I’ll be in trouble.

    Or I would be without the superb guidance of your blog posts. 😀

    It was process issues that stopped me in my tracks for years, in the past. I thought I should be able to just sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer screen) and start writing the story. I know that works for many writers, but it didn’t work for me. I ground to a complete halt after 3 pages. With not a clue of what happened next.

    Then I tried thoroughly outlining a story and ended up with a complete outline that felt lifeless, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, and which I did, in fact, abandon.

    I also tried collecting notes and pictures and snippets of story, but didn’t know how to put them together. It was all very frustrating.

    And then I gave up for a while. Which was sad. I wanted to be writing, but figured I must not be a writer, since I couldn’t make it work for me.

    Finally, I read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. For some reason, her chapter on meditating on your potential story-to-be-written got me thinking in another direction. I’d written (and had published) quite a few role playing game modules. How had I managed it? Basically, by world-building. I’d make oodles of notes on the places and the people and the social mores and institutions and everything else. And my story (because RPG modules are essentially stories along with guidelines for how the players will improvisationally “play” them out) would arise from the world.

    That method broke my fiction-writing log jam. What came out of it was a skeletal outline (very minimalist) that didn’t suck the life of the story out of it, but that gave me an anchor for that blank page/computer screen.

    The process became more streamlined as I wrote more stories. I don’t have to generate nearly as much material before my story emerges. But, in times of writing trouble, I revert to it to get myself around a roadblock and started again.

    I dread the day when my method ceases to work. What I’ll do then is review all your blog posts on the subject 😀 and start trying some of the methods you’ve been so kind as to share.

  2. I love this metaphor 🙂 It’s also similar to how I write, but instead of having left-over post-its, I usually have to add quite a few in order to get a semblance of a plot. I’m usually still adding stuff even after the first draft. I can’t decide which would be easier/harder – being the type of writer who has to cut lots of stuff from their draft, or being the type of writer who has to add. It’s a good thing we all work differently!

  3. I’m just happy to hear that making tons of lists is a good idea. My husband thinks I’m crazy or stalling when I do similar things. (At the moment it’s fine-tuning my calendar system so that A and B happen on the right day and time on C as they do on Z by making sure that Q stays the same.) I currently feel that I have a half-empty puzzle box full of solid Blue center pieces with no borders and no idea why any picture would need this much blue.

  4. The story idea I want to use two books from now (the sequel to my current WIP is in line first) started out with a really interesting setting and heroine, but no real idea of what would happen with them. I have a vague concept of the plot now, but it still needs a lot more Tinkertoy pieces added before it’s writable.

  5. Jewelry metaphors can also use jewelry more elaborate than stringing together beads. It can be a matter of creating a golden crown with a jewel — or jewels — set in the elaborate structure.

    Which leads itself to extension in the question of how many jewels — spontaneous ideas — you insert into the structure you work together, and also the question of whether the jewels are the right color to go together and how can you tell.

  6. The problem I have with most of those metaphors is that I’m always finding myself missing pieces. I then have to scramble to make more, before I can continue on.

    OTOH, my current WIP is giving me a jigsaw-puzzle type problem, not with the story’s plot, but with the plot of my villains. I (mostly) know what their evil plot is, but I’m having a bit of trouble with the jigsaw-puzzle of my protagonists figuring it out – what they learn and when and how they learn it.

  7. Eh, all metaphors are inexact. Otherwise they would be identities. Use as useful.

    For instance, my jewelry one neglects to mention that the gold can rearrange itself when I’m not looking, sometimes even pushing out a gem that no longer fits. . . .

  8. Deep Lurker – I’ve been having a similar problem with how my protag gets onto all the deep-laid plotting that I know has been going on in the background. Lately I’ve been watching mystery shows (mostly Remington Steel, not a hardship) and paying close attention to what the detective learns when and how. I think it’s helping; I’m definitely picking up some tricks. (It’s amazing how often major clues are presented by Secondary Character Who Has Done Case-Solving Research Off-Screen, for example.)

  9. @Deep Lurker
    “I’m having a bit of trouble with the jigsaw-puzzle of my protagonists figuring it out – what they learn and when and how they learn it.”
    This is exactly my current problem! I know a few of the things my protagonists still need to find out about what the villain is up to, but I have no idea which one should come next or where they should start investigating.

  10. @Deep Lurker

    One of the webcomics I read is doing an interesting variant on that now. Evil villain is ALREADY defeated and in custody. Now the heroes are scrambling around trying to exactly how much and what kind of mess the guy almost made. (so they can clean it up)

    I’ve almost never seen the heroes have to figure out the evil plot AFTER they defeat the villain before.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,