I always find that plotting a novel or longer story is like a jigsaw puzzle.
How do you work a jigsaw puzzle?
People have different strategies. Some like to find all the straight edges and get the borders in place. Others like to find a strong bit of color and start putting together an interesting bit. Others sort out the pieces: one side out/three sides in, two sides out/two sides in–or some other visual way of sorting.
Plots are like this too.
Border strategy: these writers like to outline their story.
Colorful strategy: these writers like to start with a character or a bit of action and build from there.
Sorting strategy: these writers work all around the story, getting bits of action in place, bits of characterization in place and so on.
How jigsaw puzzles help us understand revision
In revision, this means two things:
- Keep your vision of the finished piece clear in your mind. There’s no box top to look at when we write a novel. There’s only the vision for what the story could be in your mind. You need to keep a clear mental picture of that. And yet, I find the picture changes, much like it does for a painter as s/he paints. I find that I keep the general outline clear, while remaining flexible on details. Does it matter if Jill has a blue sweater or a pink sweater? Maybe. Which means I can let either happen.
- Every part needs to work with every other part. This is a particularly helpful idea when revising a novel. It means that when I am stuck and looking for a solution, I must look to the puzzle pieces already in place to find the answer.
For example, in my WIP, I knew that a birthday party couldn’t come off without a hitch, something needed to jeopardize the story. But what? I tried several things that didn’t work. Finally, I read through the story again, trying to find something that would make the birthday party seem impossible to pull off.
My Main Character (MC) likes to sing and in fact, loves to sing duets with his Dad. Duets. What if two people, without knowing it, planned two birthday parties on the same night? That would put the party in jeopardy: who would go to which party and who would be the loser in the popularity contest? Duet. MC talks to both parties and proposes a Duet, a combined party.
The answer to the plot problem–how to complicate the party–was in the story, as was the solution.
Jigsaw puzzles. We create each piece of the jigsaw and when the story is mostly filled in, it’s difficult. Only one piece will fit there. At that point, look at the overall story, the details of your story. The answer is there, if you look for it.