Building Strong Stories is Like Putting a Jigsaw Puzzle Together

Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than to begin a story, investing emotionally, getting attached and, part way through, realizing the writer is not taking you anywhere; you are lost with no resolution, let alone any satisfying denouement, on the horizon. The TV series, Lost, is a recent case in point (how appropriately named).  How does this happen?

I’ve spoken to a number of writers over time and one thing always amazes me - how differently writers approach the writing process.  On one side of the spectrum, some tell me they methodically plot out their narratives.  On the other side, others tell me they sit down and just start writing - they say their characters come to life and guide them as to where to go (these folks usually report they are satisfied with their story after 20 or so rewrites). I’m one who likes the middle ground, although I tend toward the later folks, wanting to know where I am heading, if not my destination, before I begin the trip. I follow the design, craft, then write process.

L. R. W. Lee
When you shop for a jigsaw puzzle, how do you choose which one you buy?  The picture on the box.  Put another way, the destination. You bring your jigsaw puzzle home and what do you do? You look on the box to see how big it will be when assembled. Then you locate a table large enough that will not be needed for something else while you construct the puzzle. You locate a pair of scissors and finally open the box. What have you done?  You’ve designed the environment in which you will construct your puzzle.

Now that the puzzle box is open, what’s the first thing you do?  You begin sorting similar pieces in piles.  You put similar colored or textured pieces together in their own piles and put edge pieces in another pile. You have crafted how your puzzle will take shape.  Only now do you begin constructing the puzzle.

Writing is no different.  The design and crafting phases help organize your thoughts so you more easily reach your desired destination with fewer rewrites.

Design your story beginning with a few questions:
  • What am I trying to accomplish from writing this? Am I trying to convince someone to do something?  Am I trying to explain something?  Am I trying to discourage some outcome?
  • What events, thoughts, feelings could contribute to accomplishing this objective? 
  • What kinds of characters will I need to invent to accomplish my goal? (hero, villain, sympathetic, miserly, etc)
  • What background do my readers need to know about the situation and characters?  How can I weave this back story through character and situation introductions?
  • How can I introduce questions in my reader’s mind that keep them engaged and turning pages to know more?
  • How do I want my reader to feel during each phase of the narrative?

Once you have a firm grasp of the design of your story, begin crafting your narrative with these questions:
  • Who does what? When? Why? How? Where? Demand that your answers work with the physics of the world you are creating.
  • At what point, in story-time, will the narrative begin? End?
  • How can I best show, and not tell, what is happening?
  • Which of the five senses will I appeal to as I introduce characters and situations?
  • What tools will be introduced and when? If your character needs a sword in a middle chapter, where/when is the sword introduced before he needs it?
  • What themes will you trace throughout the story to build suspense and a coherent narrative?  Is it a character doing something? Is it a mystery waiting to be revealed? Is it an object mysteriously showing up periodically? 
Notice, you have not yet committed words to paper.  The design and crafting phases are primarily exercises that help you organize your thoughts. I believe they are the hardest parts of inventing any story.  This is where your skill at inventing characters, places and conflicts shines.  While difficult, I believe these are the two most critical elements to writing great stories. Only after completing your design and crafting should you begin writing.

With your narrative thought through, your characters are now free to emerge and realize their potential. I am always amazed at how my characters respond to the freedom that designing and crafting produce.  They go where I hadn’t imagined, have more attitude than I’d expected, and become bigger personalities, while arriving at the desired destination with a minimum of rewrites.

L. R. W. Lee is the author of Andy Smithson: Blast of the Dragon’s Fury, a middle grade fantasy adventure that entertains while also teaching uncommon life principles designed to make your life more satisfying.  You can connect with her at

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  1. This is valuable information and I am certainly going to apply it to the story I have in mind to tell. However, as a fan of the remarkable tv show, Lost, I felt I had to defend it a bit, as it has become a kind of whipping boy example of bad writing that I feel is unfair, especially when comparing writing a tv show to writing a novel. Recently I read this about how the show Lost came about, and considering how it started, I think it's remarkable that the show turned out as well as it did. Novel writers have the luxury of writing and rewriting as many drafts as necessary to make their story work. TV writers have to write a show a week, plus they have no idea whether or not their show will be renewed. They also have to contend with unexpected events such as actors suddenly leaving a show, forcing complete changes in the story, or even writer's strikes that shorten seasons. Lost was dense, mind boggling and confusing, but I felt that it answered more questions than not, and it brought it's huge cast of characters to a satisfying (to me) conclusion. When I watched it again I found that it held together and made more sense than I had realized the first time around. If you give it another chance you might agree with me.

  2. Thank you Jo for hosting L.R.W. Lee on your blog today. This is a very interesting. I do have to agree with the writer who commented before me about the TV show LOST. I watched the whole series and feel those who felt it never drew any conclusion never from the beginning understood what was happening from one episode to the next. Yes, there were times bad writing did happen or things just weren't moving like they should have, but the overall plot was there the whole time. You just had to look beyond and remember key elements from show to show.


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