There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. Some writers prefer to just sit down and start writing without any sort of plan, while others like to break down their novel into individual scenes and plot out the arcs, motivations, locations, and timeframe of each. Each method involves its own difficulties; outliners can burn out from their story before they start writing, and discovery writers (also called “pantsers,” as in writing by the seat of their pants) can lose their way and not know how to proceed with the story. I propose a hybrid method, which I call the jigsaw method of story writing.
If you have ever completed a jigsaw puzzle, you’ve probably discovered that the easiest way to proceed, especially when you begin, is to sort out and assemble all the side pieces to the puzzle. They are easy to identify because each has a straight edge, and when you separate those out first, it’s so much easier to find interlocking pieces because you don’t have to deal with the hundreds or thousands of pieces that make up the puzzle as a whole. The same logic applies to writing a story.
I propose that there are four edge pieces when it comes to assembling the jigsaw puzzle of a story. I’ve found that this works best with short stories because I personally prefer a more detailed outline when it comes to novels, but this method should work with novels as well.
Puzzle Side Piece #1 – Character
The first piece of the puzzle is the character. Even though plot gets most of the attention when it comes to putting a story together, it’s really the characters that draw us in make us invested in the story. If you don’t have a strong, interesting character, readers are likely to lose interest before they discover all those wonderful plot twists you have planned.
Let’s run through a few examples:
- Thirty year-old male chef
- Seventeen year-old female warrior
- Sixty year-old retired space marine
- Forty year-old wizard
I don’t know about you, but when I brainstormed these character ideas, I immediately started coming up with story ideas for them. If you ever get stuck when you’re looking for story ideas, come up with a few characters first and see where it takes you.
Puzzle Side Piece #2 – Setting
The second piece to our story outline puzzle is the setting. The setting is where the story takes place in space and time. While the character is the eyes through which the reader looks into your world, the setting is the world they see. This can be another great starting point when you’re brainstorming story ideas, but I personally find that the setting changes a great deal more than the character when the story finally comes together.
Again, a few examples:
- Dracula’s castle after the vampire is defeated
- A cluster of floating islands in a medieval-esque period
- A scout ship charting the farthest reaches of known space
- 1930′s Hollywood, California
The same is true regarding settings as it is for characters. Stories can flow naturally from interesting settings, but become that much more interesting when you combine them with compelling characters.
Puzzle Side Piece #3 – Conflict
Conflict is the real meat of the story. If there is no tension, nothing to overcome, why should anyone continue reading? People turn pages because they want to know what happens next. That desire comes from tension. Will the princess ever get rescued? Will the knight ever defeat the shapeshifting dragon? Not if they’re both sitting at home playing checkers and threatened with nothing more serious than their own boredom.
A few examples of conflicts for your main characters:
- Struggling to build a successful business in a hostile environment
- Fighting an army of goblins to retrieve a stolen artifact
- Finding the way home after being stranded without a map
- Creating a powerful work of art consistent without being compromised by outside influences
Most of the time people think of an outline or the story, it is the conflict that gets all the attention. This is the conflict in this scene, this is the conflict in that scene. But it’s really just one piece of the puzzle. A good conflict is essential in order to show a sense of progression and raise tension enough to keep the pages turning, but it’s when it gets combined with the other pieces that it can really shine.
Puzzle Side Piece #4 – Inner Growth
You don’t see inner growth, or character growth, talked about much when people discuss crafting a novel or outlining a story, but I feel that it’s an essential part in making the story a satisfying one. Over the course of the story, the main character has to grow and change, not only to face the challenges posed within the story, but to improve life afterward. This is where a boy becomes a man or a criminal learns the value of good. You don’t have to turn your story into an after-school special, but character growth makes the journey and resolution that much more satisfying.
- Learns that having money does not make him better than anyone else
- Reconciles with an estranged father and prevents the cycle from continuing with her own children
- Discovers new ways to deal with the challenges of life without alcohol
- Realizes that if all he does is work and sleep, the best things in life will pass him by
The story possibilities expand exponentially when you start taking the pieces and mixing them up in order to create new and interesting story ideas. For example, let’s put our chef in Dracula’s castle trying to build a successful business, and along the way, he learns that being rich doesn’t make him better than the poor people who work for him. Are you already thinking of scenes, lines of dialogue, or supporting characters? The puzzle almost seems to fill itself in once all the side pieces are in place.
Everyone writes differently, and how you write a story may be completely different from how I write a story or how your favorite author writes a story. I’ve written stories using the jigsaw puzzle method I outlined above, and even though some of them were terrible and didn’t work at all, others came together so quickly it felt more like reading the story while my fingers tapped out the words.
Maybe this will work for you, or maybe you have your own method that is just as valid and works perfectly well for you. The key is to sit down and start writing, because if you never write page one, how will you ever get to page 300? Whatever method you use, just keep writing one word after another and you’ll get there eventually.
Thinking about jigsaw puzzles reminds me of all the low-tech toys I used to play with when I was a kid. Tinker Toys, Legos, Hot Wheels cars, GI Joes, action figures, and the like. What is your favorite toy from when you were a child? Do you have any other methods for fleshing out stories that you like to use? Leave a note in the comments below. Thanks for reading!