Posted On September 3, 2010 by Print This Post

Puzzle Writing

Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! I’m delighted to introduce our readers to writer, actress, and RWA regional director Ruth Kaufman. Ruth joins us today to discuss an interesting writing technique known as Puzzle Writing–a sure fire way of getting rid of writer’s block.

The class is yours, Ruth!

Writing a book is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You have to arrange a lot of pieces–characters, plot, setting, pace, sub-genre elements, dialogue, narrative, etc.–until they form a seamless whole.

Some people start to put together a puzzle by setting aside all the edge pieces. Then they complete the border and work inward. They are like plotters, who write their synopses in order to have an overview of the story first. Pantsers might work from a corner out, adding one piece at a time until thepuzzle takes shape. Others take a clump of pieces that look like they’re related and connect those for a bit, then move on to another clump until they have enough clumps to join together. These are what I call puzzle writers.

Many of us believe or were told that we need to write consecutively from page one until we reach “the end.” We think we have to start a new project by writing the all-important first chapter hook so we can suck the reader in and introduce character and conflict in an engaging manner. After all, you can’t enter many unpublished contests, sell on a partial or get a lot of help from your critique group if you only have chapters 4 and 5. But sometimes, even with a synopsis for a road map, we get stuck along the way. Then we get frustrated and our output slows or comes to a halt.

Writers may have inklings or ideas for upcoming scenes…they see them in their mind’s eye or simply know what needs to happen and how. But they may be hesitant to write, for example, about how the hero and heroine meet at a wedding, when they don’t yet know how the character(s) are going to get there.
I suggest simply writing what you do know, even if it only ends up being a few paragraphs at a time, and then bridging those bits together. This process serves several purposes:

  • Instead of tying up brain power by remembering what you want to write later, getting down what’s in your head frees up room and energy for more ideas.
  • As Nora says, “You can’t edit a blank page.” If you aren’t sure how to write your next scene, why stare at the blank page you’re on when you have something else you want to say?
  • One cause of writer’s block can be not knowing the best way to handle what comes next. Though you know there’s the meeting at the wedding, you’re not sure how you want it to unfold. Sometimes when you just start writing instead of thinking, you write more. This is one reason why events like NaNoWriMo and book in a week help so many people complete so many new pages.

Reworking a completed manuscript is another type of puzzle writing. You may be changing point of view from first to third or vice versa, or you may find you’ve written from more POVs than you ultimately want to have. An agent sent me a revision letter saying she wouldn’t submit a non-romance manuscript unless I took out one of the POV characters. The agent said it was ok if she remained, as long as the action was in someone else’s POV. Since IMO important information was revealed and conflict developed through this character’s eyes, I had to figure out how to have others fill in the blanks and where I needed to cut pages (ouch) or add new scenes (sigh). I made an Excel file of every chapter and scene, color coded by whose POV I was in along with a few words describing what happened and when (date, time of day). I had trouble grasping how to remove this POV character and adjust events while staring at the file on my monitor. So I printed the chart, cut it into one piece for each scene, arranged the pieces of paper in their current order on my desk and moved around scenes and chapters until I was satisfied with the new order.

Using the puzzle writing approach, you’ll probably end up with some holes to fill. But sometimes it’s easier to write a transition of how the H/H get from point A to point B when you already know exactly what happens at point B. It can be easier to fill a plot point hole than a canyon of empty pages.

Sometimes things you’ve already established in your world can move you forward, other times they can hold you back. You might get fixated on a small point, “If Susie drives herself to the wedding, what do I do with her car?” By writing the main course of a scene–the H/H meeting at the wedding–before you’ve decided side dishes–how the characters get to the event–you aren’t constrained by the reality you’ve already created. You don’t have to be thinking in the back of your mind how to force minor events to fit key plot points, “Should Susie’s car break down? Have a flat tire? Get stolen?”

Consider adding puzzle writing to your arsenal of approaches to meet your writing goals.

* * *

Thanks, Ruth!

RU Crew, have you heard of the puzzle writing technique before? Have you ever written bits and pieces, and then connected them together?

Be sure to stop back on Monday for Query Writing 101 with C.J. Redwine.

Ruth’s Bio:

Ruth Kaufman is a Chicago author and actress. Visit her at and

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13 Responses to “Puzzle Writing”

  1. Good morning, Ruth!

    Do you keep an on-going list of the “wholes to fill” as you go through this process?

    Thanks so much for joining us.


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | September 3, 2010, 5:15 am
  2. Morning Ruth!!

    I guess I have my own version of puzzle writing….I write little snippets of dialogue or scenes on scrap paper and then keep them in a pile on my desk. I go through them occasionally and go oh yeah!!! the catfish scene! =) I really need to get used to typing those into my computer though, the cats have a heyday shredding them into confetti!

    Do you feel you write faster with this approach? Since you don’t get stuck as often, and can just zoom along to another scene?

    Thanks for being with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 3, 2010, 8:35 am
  3. Hello! Thanks for having me.

    @Tracey: I do keep a list of missing pieces. Sometimes when I realize what I need I’ll have an idea, and write down whatever comes to mind in the place it should go. So when I get to that point, I already have something to work with.

    @Carrie: I like your approach, though a tidier list might be easier to keep track of! I do feel I write faster, because as I’ve said my head isn’t clogged with bits of scenes I know I want to write later. Plus often by the time I’ve written my way up to a missing piece, I then have a much better concept of what to write next.

    Posted by Ruth Kaufman | September 3, 2010, 9:42 am
  4. Hi, Ruth. Welcome to RU. I had the pleasure of meeting you (accidentally!) at the Carina Press event at RWA. What fun.

    I have just realized I use this technique and didn’t know it. LOL. I’m a scene chart person and have a spreadsheet that I load all my scene ideas into. Then I start putting them in order by plot points and filling in where I need to. I love doing it this way because if I need to move scenes, I just cut and paste. In fact, I’ve spent the last week cutting and pasting different scenes in an attempt to improve some pacing issues.

    Great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 3, 2010, 9:57 am
  5. I do this but didn’t know it had a name. I usually free-write the first chapter and then I roughly draft out key scenes that come to mind. They may have full dialogue or may be just an outline – then I lay them out and figure out what I need to piece them together and make a complete picture.

    Thanks for the article!


    Posted by Robin Covington | September 3, 2010, 10:15 am
  6. Hi, Ruth –

    We’re delighted to have you at RU talking about this topic! I’m curious about how long it takes to you weave all your puzzle pieces together, or create transitions between these scenes/chunks of writing. I have a MS that I’ve torn apart and reworked several times. I’m still not “there” yet, but I’m hopeful this process will tell me something very important.

    Also – do you find that you write your big or pivotal scenes first and then fill in?

    Many thanks!

    PS – and it was nice to meet you in Orlando!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 3, 2010, 10:53 am
  7. @Adrienne: It was nice meeting you in Orlando. I like your chart idea for cutting and pasting. Usually I have a one page plotting list that shows each scene in each chapter. When I get an idea for a puzzle piece, I put that in italics.

    @Robin: I figured a lot of writers did it, so it should have a name…now we have plotters, pantsers and puzzlers! Hmmm…do I see an RWA workshop in there?

    @Kelsey: Nice to meet you too! Each ms takes a different amount of time; sometimes a particular space can be empty for quite a while. It can be hard not to be bothered by the holes, but I think it’s better to keep writing than dwell on a problem area.
    I define transitions as just the small time or location jumps, where you might say, “Six hours later…” or “When he got back to the office…”
    Perhaps you’re thinking more of sequels, as defined by Dwight Swain which has reaction to the scene that just happened and motivation for what’s to come. Most of my empty places seem to be the reactions. But other times, it’s a plot question. For example, I was writing along in my pantser fashion when suddenly a servant reported that his employer was dead. So I had to figure out who killed her.

    Posted by Ruth Kaufman | September 3, 2010, 12:57 pm
    • Ruth – what a meant by “transitions” are more the scenes (and sequels) between those big scenes you’ve written along the way. I’m sure in puzzle writing, some of the scenes are the smaller ones, but I would bet some of them are the big turning point scenes.


      Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 3, 2010, 3:21 pm
      • Hi Kelsey,
        Sometimes when I figure out the big scenes, the smaller ones come into focus. Because by knowing what’s on either side, I think it’s easier to create the bridge.

        Posted by Ruth Kaufman | September 3, 2010, 6:26 pm
  8. Hello Ruth!

    You’re spot on when you say writing a book is like doing a jigsaw puzzle.

    I normally write in a linear fashion, but your remark about “write what you know” really hits home. I’ll tap out a full page of ideas/scenes for a future chapter when it pops into my head.

    And when I finally do get to that particular chapter, those notes serve as a writing prompt (maybe this only works for me!) and I’m not staring at a page in which the only words are “chapter…”

    Thanks you!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 3, 2010, 4:36 pm
    • Hey, Jen – do you keep those notes in the body of your MS or in another file?


      Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 3, 2010, 4:50 pm
      • Hi Kelsey!

        It depends. If I’m on chapter 15 and the notes are for chapter 18, I’ll keep them at the bottom of chapter 15 and move them to chapter 16 when I’m finished with 15 and keep moving them until I’ve addressed everything in the notes or decided I’m not going to use everything. This way, it’s more convenient to cursor down and refer to them if I need to do some foreshadowing in the current chapter to lead up to the future scene. If it’s for chapter 30, then I’ll keep in a separate file under a zip file for the ms and give it a name like “James eats crow” because I know that happens late in the book.

        I also type a few notes at the bottom of each chapter I’m working on to remind me what happened in the previous chapter..i.e…he had a meeting with Mr. Crusty…so make some reference to Mr. Crusty in the next couple of chapters. I learned this the hard way. My beta readers will ask…”What happened to this guy?”

        Also, I’m a tweaker. If I go back to a previous chapter looking for something I need for the current chapter I’m working on, chances are I’ll spend the next two hours tweaking the previous chapter. So if I have the notes at the bottom of the chapter I’m supposed to be working on, it keeps me focused. I know, strange, huh? I realize it sounds like I’m overlapping my efforts with notes on previous/future chapters but it’s my method of madness and it helps me get the first few pages of each chapter off to a good start.

        I also have a junkyard file for each ms where I dump all the stuff I’ve cut from the ms. I hate wasting words!

        Sorry about being so long-winded. 💡

        Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 3, 2010, 5:48 pm
  9. Ruth and everyone–

    Thank you for a great discussion! What a wonderful way to kick off the holiday weekend.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 4, 2010, 10:53 am

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