Friday, September 22, 2017

What Solving Puzzles Can Teach You About Writing

Jessica Nelson

Lately, my family has been into jigsaw puzzles. It started in July on our annual family vacation. There were several rainy evenings, so we picked up a couple of puzzles from Boulineau’s to entertain ourselves when we couldn’t go out. And so began our puzzle-working addiction. We are now on our seventh puzzle since July, each one with more pieces than the previous.

As we’ve worked our way through the triumphs and the disappointments, I’ve realized that writers can learn a lot from solving puzzles. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

1. There’s always that piece that almost fits. As you put together your puzzle, you inevitably find pieces that look like they should fit somewhere, but they don’t. They have the right shape and the right colors. Sometimes, the piece even appears to fit at first, but then you discover it’s in the wrong place when other pieces don’t fit around it. The same thing happens in storytelling when you have information important to the story, just not in the right place. This could be exposition or backstory or even a scene that you know has to fit into the big picture somewhere; it just doesn’t fit right there. It’s okay if whatever piece of the story doesn’t fit right away—don’t force it. Be patient, and eventually you’ll find the right placement.

2. Knowing when to move on. When you've been looking at that same section of puzzle for so long that you can't even see it anymore—like when you've been trying to figure out the same scene for days—it's time to move on to a different section. Or, in this case, a different scene or a different story altogether. We’ve all been there. In my house, while working on the puzzle, we periodically rotate positions or move onto a new section so we don’t get burnt out focusing on one place. Sometimes we get stubborn and refuse to move on to a different part of the puzzle, which just leaves us frustrated. As writers, we tend to do the same thing. We fixate on one scene or chapter or story and keep at it, even if we aren’t doing any productive work on it. Even when we are only driving ourselves crazy. Puzzle making has taught me to know when to move on and work on something else. Don’t worry, whatever is driving you up a wall will still be there later. In the meantime, take a step back, let your eyes readjust, let your brain clear and refocus, and go work on something else for a while.

3. How to see the big picture. Related to my first point, sometimes you’re convinced a piece has to go in a certain section because of its colors or patterns, so you spend hours trying to make it work in that part of the puzzle. But when you step back and look at the whole puzzle, you realize those same colors occur elsewhere, and that piece you’ve been trying to force for hours actually belongs somewhere else. Sometimes the same thing happens when you write. You try to fit a scene or a character into a story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, you realize it may not belong in that part of the story. Or maybe it doesn’t belong in the story at all. When you view the big picture, you can see what’s working and what isn’t. You can see what sections are complete and what needs to be developed.

I recommend breaking out a puzzle—even one of those hundred-piece puzzles that take less than a day to complete—and see what you can learn from puzzle working. And when you’re done (and your brain is refreshed), get back to writing! Once you get one story solved, you’ll be ready to take on the next. And the next. And the next.