The latest craze in my household has been jigsaw puzzles. There’s something so soothing and yet stimulating, something wonderfully old-fashioned and analog, about working slowly and steadily on a puzzle. I think of it as assembling my own little sand mandala, putting care and effort into it. At the end, I have to acknowledge that it is transitory, and I get almost as much pleasure as crumpling it up again. But as writers do, I’ve been relating the experience back to my writing, and thinking about what it can teach us all about writing. I think I’ve boiled it down to a few key lessons.
1. Start on the outside and work your way in
Everyone knows that the way to begin a puzzle is to look for edges. It’s one clear frame of reference you can work on, somewhere to get started. At the beginning of a large writing project, we can often feel intimidated by the vast emptiness looming in front of us. So much is just a big dark blur in our minds, undefined. It’s kind of like the feeling of dumping that massive pile of puzzle pieces on the table and realizing just how many of them are ocean or sky. How can we possibly assemble something as large and complex as this?
The key is to start with the edges, in both puzzling and writing. Start on the outside and work your way in. Get an idea for a few key outer plot points. Get your character out of bed and out the door. Figure out her job, her family situation, her main problems. Once you have those bits of framework down, you can start to work your way inward, delving into her psyche, into the deeper metaphysical problems of the world, into the other realms of her life. The ocean can only be pieced together when you’ve got some frame of reference around it.
2. Match like with like
The next thing you do in jigsaw puzzling is to get organized. Start getting a sense of the regions of the puzzle, and where types of pieces go. You can start figuring out that the tree is in the upper left, and the roof of the house is on the right. You can begin to see that the water is greenish over here, and turns a darker blue over there. Then you can put like with like, and group puzzle pieces in that way. In the same way, you can start to define the big dark blur of your story by putting like with with. So you figure out a chapter is taking place at the carnival. What problems could occur at this carnival? What conflicts will your character run up against? And what would not belong at this carnival? Start pulling your ideas into groups so that they can rub up against each other harmoniously.
3. Look for a continuing thread
The next problem jigsaw puzzlers encounter is how these regions fit together. That’s why we puzzlers love finding pieces with a continuing thread, some sort of stripe or color that bridges the two zones. We live for those half-and-half type pieces. In the same way, we’ve got to find half-and-half moments in our writing. If the chapters are completely distinct, we might as well make them short stories; if the scenes of a short story are so distinct, then they simply won’t fit together. Once you’ve gotten a sense of the “zones” of your story, start working to piece them together. Plant a seed in one chapter that will blossom in another; start a fight in one chapter that won’t be resolved until the next. These connecting threads are what make the puzzle — and the story — come together as one beautiful work.
Hope this metaphor served you well, readers — now it’s back to puzzling (and writing) for me.