I love puzzles — crosswords, Sudoku, word wheel, scrabble and jigsaw–I can wile away many hours happily studying the clues. When I find an answer I get a little buzz of satisfaction. One of the traditions in my house is a jigsaw puzzle at Christmas. Guests know it will be on the kitchen counter and all are welcome to fit in a few pieces. Sometimes I have a hard time prying people away from the puzzle and getting them to the dinner table. It’s a fun pastime and well suited to the holidays. Usually the puzzle is complete by the second week of January.
It took me until the second week of February to complete the one shown at the top of this blog because I had “help” from a calico cat. Her form of help is to sit on the pieces so they can’t be used, or to roll around on the completed bits, totally disarranging them, or, as a special treat, she’ll pick up the pieces in her paw and run away with them. I had to resort to covering the puzzle when not in use, that’s what that rolled up white sheet is all about, and only working on it when the cat was asleep or outside. So, my frisson of gratification has been all the sweeter for being delayed.
Constructing a story is a bit like solving a jigsaw. The writer starts with a few ideas about what might happen — the pieces of the puzzle. Then she has to figure out where to put those pieces in the story — the timeline. Often a writer will know the beginning scene and the end scene, but the stuff in the middle is a bunch of jumbled pieces, some don’t even belong in this story. As she sorts and fits the pieces together, inevitably the author will realize that there are missing pieces. She has to go back and write more scenes. The entire process may take longer than expected –usually it takes longer. Some happy writers find the pieces fit together quickly without a lot of holes or leftovers. Most of us have to try the bits in different places, turn them one way or the other to get them into the overall design.
Just as I find having room to spread out my jigsaw, I find having a visual “board” for my story helps me see the overall shape. If you have a lot of wall space and a white board, this initial phase of solving the story puzzle might include a few trusted friends. If drawing on the walls doesn’t suit your lifestyle, you can do what I do, and use a large file folder to layout the pieces of the story.
I draw in big squares to represent the chapters in my book, then use post-it notes to itemize the scenes I know will be in the book. The ones in this example are all yellow, but you can refine the system by colour coding –pink for the heroine’s scenes, blue for the hero, yellow for narrative, etc. I gave up using the colours because there was so much overlap. Hero, heroine and exposition all ended up in one scene and I wasted hours worrying about the colour of the post-it. Still, some authors love coloured paper, coloured pens and pretty little stars. Laying out this “storyboard” is also a great excuse to run to the stationery store and buy new pads of paper, new pens, stamps and stickers. Kind of like getting new supplies for the first day of school.
However you lay out the story, on post-its, on a whiteboard, on a corkboard, or in a computer program, doesn’t really matter. It’s your puzzle, play with it as you will. But I do encourage you to try the “puzzle” method of composition. It makes for a change and change can spark creativity. And aren’t we all chasing that will-o’-the-wisp, creativity?