Elizabeth: What I learned about story from jigsaw puzzles

Fun and educational too!

Recently my life has included more than its fair-share of jigsaw puzzles.  My current spate of puzzling actually started about a year ago when the National Gallery had a Black Friday sale on fine art puzzles.  I ordered one of a Monet painting and then spent “forever” putting it together – all those shades of blue!

More recently I was browsing in a store and came across a colorful “Women’s March” puzzle.  I was looking for a excuse not to write way to relax, so I gave it a try.  One puzzle led to another – a French street scene, a flower garden, an artistic grouping of globes – and suddenly I’d worked my way through about a dozen puzzles.  I’ve gone cold-turkey for NaNo, and not just because the only puzzle I have left is another fine-art-shades-of-blue masterpiece, but I did learn a few things from all that puzzling that seem relevant to writing.

No Right Way

My standard approach to completing a puzzle is to first put the border together and then work on the interior of the puzzle.  That worked fine until I started on a puzzle where all the border pieces were exactly the same (who does that?); then I had to come up with a new approach.  I find the same thing is true in writing.  Some stories seem to demand that I start with the framework of an outline while others insist on more of a learn-as-you-go approach.  Turns out that the only “right way” to do a puzzle or to write a story is the way that gets you to the end.  If that changes for every project, well then so be it.

That piece doesn’t go there

Don’t you hate it when you’re working on a puzzle and have a handful of pieces left but none of them fit in the remaining empty spaces?    I certainly do.  That very problem was all the fault of the “puzzle with many identically shaped pieces.”  Very frustrating!  It’s like when you’re busily writing along and and find you’ve written yourself fin to a corner or realized that the action is happening out of sequence.  Sometimes you have to back up and undo some of your work or reorder things before you can find a path forward again.  You wind up with a better result, but it can be a painful process.

Big Picture

When working on a puzzle, there are a few things (besides trying to find all the edge pieces) that I generally do.  The first is to layout all of the pieces and the second is to find groups of pieces/colors that go together.  In the French street scene puzzle, there were a couple of tall colorful houses, so I searched out the pieces that seemed to belong to each of the houses and completed those sections first.  Then there were a couple of cars, so I did those next.  I didn’t work the puzzle from top to bottom or left to right; I didn’t try to fill in every piece in the section I was working, I just did the obvious parts and then moved on.  After all the big areas were done I had a manageable group of pieces left that were pretty easy to fit into the blank spaces.  If I had tried to fully complete each area intiailaly, it would have been both more time consuming and more frustrating.

When writing, that method is a lot like starting with the big, fun, interesting scenes first and then going back and filling in the connective story-tissue that ties them all together.  Though I started out writing as a firm “write from beginning to end” fan, I’ve begun to see the value focusing on the big sections/ideas first and then letting the rest take care of itself.  It doesn’t always work, but it does mean I spend a lot less time stuck, trying to get a troublesome scene to work, and more time getting big slashes of story down on paper.

Is this supposed to be relaxing?

Although I initially started working on puzzles as a way to relax, I can confirm that definitely was not the case.  As it turns out, once I start a puzzle I have a bit of a compulsion to finish it.  “Just one more piece” could best describe my process.  The same can be said for writing.  Not that I do it as a way to relax, but that there is a  compulsion to go just a little bit further, regardless of what goal I may have set for myself.

Of course if writing was like working a puzzle, where you have a picture in front of you with what the finished result will look like, it would be a lot easier but sadly that is not the case.  Though neither puzzling nor writing are particularly relaxing for me, the end results are definitely both quite enjoyable.

I’m hoping to keep all of this puzzle/writing learning in mind as I work my way through 30-days-of-short-stories for this year’s NaNo.  If I’m really lucky, maybe I learn a few more things as I go along.

It probably won’t be relaxing though.

So, have you learned anything new about your own writing process lately?

5 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What I learned about story from jigsaw puzzles

  1. I often have a jigsaw puzzle on the go when I’m in the discovery/first draft stage of a story. Fitting the pieces together seems to please my story brain, though like you I have a compulsion to finish what I started, so instead of doing a few pieces here and there I can easily lose an afternoon adding “just one more piece.”

    My main learning has been that one approach definitely does not fit all. A while ago I tried a handful of circular puzzles and learned that the best way to tackle those is from the center out, the opposite of most standard jigsaws. For me a big part of the fun is to decide the best way to tackle a particular puzzle–by colors or sections or images or whatever best suits the challenge at hand. The other thing I learned is that the “best way” is particular to an individual. My husband naturally tries to match shapes first, rather then colors or images, whereas that’s my last resort. I have been known to pick off the fun bits of a puzzle and leave him to tidy up the fine-art-shades-of-blue expanses of sea or sky 😉

    • Sounds like we have a lot in common, Jilly. I also did a lot of circular puzzles. Some worked well from the outside in, but most worked better from the center out. I love your “leave him to tidy up” methodology. That sounds like a great way to have the fun of the puzzle without so much of the frustration.

  2. I don’t really do jigsaws, more from lack of space than any other reason. I think I would like them because I see what you mean by all of these problems—especially that whole “That piece doesn’t go there” syndrome. This is me in the writing world, for sure. I write myself into corners all the time, and the last time I did, I got stuck with a dog for three books. Backing up up and rethinking my place in the story would have served me a lot better.

    Now with the (okay, American) holiday coming up, I’d think all the puzzle-putters-together would have a lot of scope to assemble!

    • I’m guessing you would be hard-pressed to find a space to do a puzzle in your place Kay, other than the dinning room table, though I do know they sells mats that you can roll up (with the in-progress puzzle in them) to minimize the space impact.

      I love that a dog was the result of your “writing into a corner.” Somehow that sounds more fun than going back and reworking the story, even if you were stuck with it for three books.

  3. What a lovely rumination! I like jigsaw puzzles, and I remember doing a green one, once, and seeing that precise color I needed out my front windshield — I reached out to grab it before I realized I was in real-life, not puzzle-world! There is something so satisfying about putting a puzzle together. To some extent, writing also has some of that same feel (well, maybe editing?). Translation really has that same “click” when the words come together like that purple house in the corner, LOL.

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