One of my daughter’s favorite things to do when she’s home from college is putting together jigsaw puzzles. When she’s at school, my wife and I have started working on them as well. The local branch of our suburban library system carries a few dozen, so we’ve had several to choose from. Recently I brought home a puzzle that included a few cardinals on a snowy landscape. Little did I know that this would turn into the puzzle from hell. During the three weeks we spent working on it, I did a lot of thinking about parallels between working on a puzzle and plotting a novel. I came up with four takeaways.

  1. Borders – This first thing we do when we get a puzzle is to separate out all of the edge pieces to form the puzzle border. I’m not sure if everyone else does it that way, but I think most people do. On the cardinal puzzle, the pieces were cut in all kinds of weird shapes – including pieces from the interior of the puzzle that were cut with straight or nearly-straight edges that could be easily mistaken for edge pieces. It took us a full week just to get the border of the puzzle finished. I compare this to outlining the plot of your novel. Just as the border of the puzzle dictates its boundaries, a novel’s outline dictates its structure. While an puzzle border is fixed and immovable (at least if it’s been put together correctly), your outline is flexible and can be adapted at will.
  2. The Big Picture View – After finishing the border, my wife got a little discouraged. This puzzle had lots of pieces of white snow and sky. How were we ever going to get all of those “look alike” pieces into place? One of my favorite techniques is to identify pieces that make up smaller chunks of the puzzle. It gives you sense of getting something accomplished as well as providing something for you to build on. This time, I separated out all of the red pieces that made up the cardinals. In writing three novels (so far), I’ve found that if you take too much of a “big picture” outlook, it’s easy to get lost. By focusing on individual scenes or plot points, you can enhance your ability to relate the section you’re working on to the overall story.
  3. Connections – After finishing the three cardinals, I went to work on two buildings – a house, and a church. Before I had completely finished them, I was able to connect them to other sections and to the border. The more connections you have, the more opportunities you have to identify and place more pieces into the picture. I liken this to connecting elements of plot and/or sub-plot. I enjoy mulling over parts of my plot and coming up with these connections, and there’s no feeling that matches the one you get when you come up with the “perfect” connection.
  4. Missing Pieces – There were several times as we neared completing this puzzle that I swore we had several missing pieces – we’d both tried every piece to fill a particular spot and none of them worked. At one point I declared, “I guarantee this piece is missing,” then picked up a random piece that fit the spot perfectly. The point here is that even if you have a plot hole, no matter how much time you’ve put in to unsuccessfully closing it, the solution may be only a matter of seconds away.

We finally did complete the puzzle, with only one piece missing, one day after I’d  finished the first draft of my latest book . In a few weeks, I’ll get to work figuring out what pieces may be missing from it.