Writing – The Puzzle Analogy

The writer friend and I were talking a while back. As I’ve said, I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, and so is she. Book ideas don’t come to us in any logical way. At first we get brief glimpses of some characters who give us a few individual scenes – in no particular order. And we wonder how the heck they’ll fit together.

As we talked, I realized our writing is a lot like doing a puzzle. Those unrelated scenes the characters give us are like the “easy” parts of a puzzle – the pink flamingo or purple house that stand out from everything else. What’s harder is all that “filler” in between – the vast multihued sky and the endless field of green grass between the flamingo and house – otherwise known as the plot.

But sometimes I look at a scene I’ve written and wonder how it can possibly tie into anything else – like the opening to Kathryn Donnellan’s universe in Summer at the Crossroads. That’s the first scene I wrote in that section. Kathryn hears a news story on the radio about the first lady’s upcoming trip to another country, which is an attempt to restore relations. They soured after the previous US president took an ill-advised stand and a diplomat was caught hacking into the State Department’s computer system.

Where was I supposed to go with that? But as I wrote, the “filler pieces” came together. Just like a puzzle, it wasn’t always easy. Some pieces didn’t belong in this particular story and had to go. Others didn’t fit where I originally thought they would. But the pieces of Kathryn’s story ultimately fell into place and formed a cohesive whole.

Of course, now Kathryn thinks that’s how the sequel should go, too. So I’ve got a plot that includes events at a winery in Oregon, an intrusion into her private life, and orders at work that could destroy a friendship. Those are the pink flamingos and purple houses. But how the heck are they going to tie together? I just have to take a deep breath and trust my characters. They know what they’re doing.

Where am I heading with this post? Well, just as there’s no single “right” way to assemble a puzzle, there’s no single “correct” way to write creatively. It’s not always easy, but we all find the method that works for us. Maybe the “easy” parts come to you first as they do with me (do the border, then grab the pieces with the obvious patterns/colors from the box) – we’re the “pantsers.” Or  maybe you get everything laid out first (border pieces, then group ALL the pieces by category before you even start) – you’re the “outliners.”

Each approach has its advantages – and disadvantages. Neither is “better” or “more professional” than the other. And there’s no reason to envy someone who approaches writing from a different direction that you do. If your method works for you, then it’s good.

So readers, which of you are the pansters? And who are the outliners? Or do you consider yourself a combination of the two?

6 thoughts on “Writing – The Puzzle Analogy

  1. I start as an outliner–I like thinking a possible plot through until the end. But I never end up following it exactly. In fact, I often deviate. It really is true that your characters take you places you hadn’t thought of going!


    • So far that initial outlining hasn’t happened for me. Once I do get into the story, I can step back and think about possible links or subplots that the characters haven’t provided before. That’s the closest I’ve been able to get to outlining. I can’t complain – I love the adventures my characters have given me!


  2. I begin with a simple plot that intrigues me. Most of the time, I already know the ending. I don’t write down the story idea until a few pink flamingos and purple houses settle into it. 🙂 That’s when I know it’s time to outline. This is the most trying step for me because I lack the self-control to resist writing a scene right in the middle of my outline. I have never included the ending in the outline phase. I think something terrible would happen if I did.

    When I begin writing, I try to do so chronologically (according to the narrative chronology) to spur me on to the next delicious scene. Of course, editing chops it all up and rearranges it again, but that’s the gist.


    • You are an organized outliner! I simply cannot resist that temptation to write once a scene presents itself. It’s strange because I’m usually very organized in the rest of my life – and I can resist other temptations. But writing? Oh, no – I have to let it out.

      That’s not to say every scene makes the final cut. The hardest cut was the first scene I wrote in my first novel. It didn’t fit the final story. But it formed a huge part of the backstory in my mind, and its influence is still there.

      Your avoidance of the ending could be the subject of an interesting post about writers’ superstitions….! I’ll bet we’re as bad as athletes!


  3. I’m a bit of an outliner, too. I like to know where I’m heading, but not slavishly so. I’ll change something midway through if the story requires it and if I have a great idea I just have to try and include it. In my latest novel I’ve managed to accomodate the sudden death of one of my characters – I hadn’t even imagined that at the start.
    Thanks for coming by my blog – btw, I completely agree with you about adverbs 🙂


    • So far the outliners are leading the pantsers…. Wow – the unexpected death of a character – I haven’t run into that one yet. I hope it wasn’t someone you thought would have a major role at the end! I’d have a hard time regrouping after that blow 😉

      I’m glad my views on adverbs are striking a chord with readers. I was afraid I was the only one who couldn’t hate them.

      I enjoy your blog – I’m of an age where I can appreciate the way the internet connects people from all over the world . Not so long ago, it wasn’t so easily done.


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