Jigsaw Plotting

Plotting–the eternal debate and struggle of authors everywhere.

Do you plot? Do you write by the seat of your pants? Do you do a little of both? What’s the best way to plot?

So many questions before you even begin to sit down and get to the story. And even once you think you know your path, you’ll have a hundred other voices telling you there’s a better way.

I’m a firm believer in going with your gut, but even that can be confusing.

I come from an academic writing background, and even when writing a research paper, I found it impossible to outline. I would do my research, write a snippet, more research, another snippet, and so on, and so on, cutting and pasting until they fell in a logical order. When I had a document full of information, I went back and added in the necessary details to deepen and explain the research, and create a smooth, flowing argument.

My fiction writing followed a similar development. When I started writing–before I had any preconceived notions of plotting–I quickly wrote whatever I thought in whatever order the thoughts came to me. It sounds like a mess, but it always worked for me. My first draft is always skeletal. I get out the details at the top of my head, and usually a lot of dialogue to pave the way, and then go back and fill in the rest.

This is something like the snowflake method, where you start with a simple summary, and build out. Just as the snowflake grows, one frozen particle after another, your story grows and becomes more complex. There are tons of articles about the snowflake method out there if you want to know more.

A second method that I’ve used a bit is “Story Breaking”; using note cards to jot down all of your ideas. You can then take these cards, lay them out and rearrange them until you have your story. Cards might be added, cards might be tossed, but when you finally have all of the essential plot points and a tight story-line, you start with the first card and begin writing each scene. (Scrivener has a fantastic note card feature if you prefer something digital).

I wish I could find the exact article I found on this a few years back, but for a while, it really helped me to move from one scene to the next because I already had a general idea of where the plot was going, and if I got stuck, I could just move on to the next card. If you’d like to know more about how this process works, I did find a piece on how Michael Crichton used notecards to plot.

But my problem came when characters rebelled (particularly Colt). As my stories progress and the characters take on a life of their own, I ended up throwing out entire stacks of cards and hitting a wall once again.

So, back to the drawing board for me.

Recently, I realized my biggest problem is writing a book beginning to end–chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3…. That simply isn’t how stories develop in my head. They develop with flashes: tight scenes, bits of dialogue, some detailed, some not. So, as I’m sitting here trying to figure out chapter 10, I already know what some odd chapter in the future looks like. I’m not sure how the characters will get there, but I have a concrete idea of where they are going.

If we look at plotting and outlining like a map, you might be the kind who sets out with a TripTik so you already know every turn, every road, and every obstacle.

But what if no map has been created yet?

qimono / Pixabay

Over the last few days, I have dubbed my method Jigsaw Plotting, because of its similarity to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Just like when you dump out those hundreds or thousands of puzzle pieces, I have an idea of what the general picture is going to look like, but some of the details are obscured.

It would be possible to find the piece for the top left corner, then search through all of the pieces to find the one that goes right next to it, and then the next, and put the puzzle together line by line, but I’m sure that’s now how most of us approach a puzzle.

Instead, we pick up piece by piece, laying it down where we expect it to fall. Sometimes we start with the edge pieces, because they’re the easiest to find, but then, we work out smaller scenes within the larger picture–piecing together a house, a person, a lake and filling in the surrounding details as we work.

This is how I write. 

Maybe, I don’t even know what Chapter 4 is going to be about, but I know what the final chapter looks like.

Why did I begin trying write a story out chronologically when it seems so hard? Well, while working in Word, I find it difficult to track all of my individual scenes and rearrange them. It’s simply frustrating when you have dozens of scenes over hundreds of pages!

But Scrivener makes it simple to “CTRL+K” and start a new scene. It doesn’t matter if it’s the next scene, or if it’s just some random scene, because I can give it a title, write what I know, then move on to the next. After I’ve cleared my head, I can then drag and drop each scene into the correct order. All that’s left from there is to fill in the gaps and connect each scene–which is easier by this point, because I’ve allowed myself to learn my characters and let the story develop naturally in my head.

As the picture becomes clearer, I know where the holes are, but I can allow myself to work on different sections if I’m not yet sure where the details are to fill that hole. Eventually, they all turn up! When I write a fight scene from chapter 20, I may learn something about the character that fills a hole in Chapter 3.

Another reason, I’ve been attempting to write chronologically, is that jigsaw puzzles are messy! Wouldn’t life be so much easier if I could just go from scene 1 to scene 2 to scene 3? Skip all the holes. Avoid rearranging huge chunks of story.

But with any kind of plotting or pantsing, filling holes and rearranging scenes is an unavoidable part of the process. I’m sure there are some who can write from start to finish and swear by it, but I’m going back to the quote I started this post with: “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

My intuition tells me to start with the scenes I know, whether they’re happening at the beginning or end. Whether they make up the edge of the puzzle, or some detail in the middle.



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