The Puzzle-Piece Plotting Method: Using What You Know to Build What You Don’t

Today’s guest post is by novelist Justin Attas (@JustinAttas), who offers an online course for writers on plotting.


For some, the most intimidating part of writing a novel happens well before pen ever hits paper: Planning, or plotting, as those in the business like to say. The trick is finding a plotting, or outlining, style that works for you. In my experience, one of the most effective ways to plot a novel is to Puzzle-Piece your story together from details you already know.

This article will walk you through assembling the puzzle you already have the means to solve, starting with Genre, then moving to Setting, Themes, Characters, and ultimately a Sequence of Events, or outline.

Genre

In the simplest terms, a genre of books is a set of parameters that put your novel in one group or another. I break them down into two categories.

1. Genres that influence theme. These genres affect the big ideas of your story and dictate the emotional aspects of it. For example, romance stories focus on themes of personal connection between one person or a few. Adventure stories illustrate growth through travel. Thrillers find characters in tense situations. Mysteries put their narrative power in the hands of unanswered questions.

2. Genres that influence setting. This category science fiction, based at least somewhat on real science, proven or theoretical, from off-planet colonies to biological augmentation. It also includes realistic fiction, in which the rules of reality are followed explicitly, and locations either are real places, or based on them.

Conversely, stories in the fantasy genre disconnect from the rules of reality. They do, however, still need a set of consistent rules outlined by the writer. Dystopian stories tend to take place in environments of strict control, such as camps, cities, or even entire countries under the influence of an oppressor.

Your story probably fits well into one of the two categories above. If it fits into both, even better! It helps to have a genre combination: one that influences setting, and one that influences theme. There are two reasons for this. First, it sets your story apart from millions of others. For example, everyone has seen a fantasy full of knights and dragons. But how many people have read a fantasy with a mystery plot line, where your faithful knight is employed as a sort of old-world detective to solve a conspiracy against the crown? Much less common.

Having a combination also opens the door for the next step in the Puzzle-Piece method of plotting.

Setting

You should already have some loose guidelines. Observe the rule of your genre that influences setting. What follows is a list of questions that will help you build your setting.

  • Size and Scale: How big do you want your setting to be? No matter the answer, remember it should be able to be broken down into smaller, easily identifiable parts. Differentiating between the regions of a large country or the wings of an estate are crucial for readers to retain information.
  • History: Now that you have some basic details about your setting, explain why it is the way it is. Details of history enrich your world and will stir up ideas about the following aspects.
  • Geography: What is the natural character of your setting? Is it mountainous, flat, or a mix? Are there many bodies of water, or is it primarily dry?
  • Infrastructure: How developed is your setting? What structures and systems do they have in place? This includes everything from roads to settlements to farms and watersheds.
  • Social climate: What are the politics of your world? What do its leaders believe, and what are their followers like?
  • Atmosphere: When combined, what should all of the above elements make your readers feel? Answers should be emotions like cozy, on edge, puzzled, tense, or inspired.

Theme

This is the beating heart of your story. Your big ideas, or themes. You already chose a genre that influences theme; guidance on where to go next is as simple as referring to that.

Characters

If you’ve made it this far in the planning process, you have ideas for at least a few characters. It’s hard to imagine a story without people in it.

Take your rough list of characters and refine them into specific roles for your plot. For the purposes of the Puzzle-Piece method, you’ll need at least five characters. Don’t worry, you really only need a protagonist and antagonist right now—the method itself can help you come up with three more.

  • Protagonist: This should be the character (or characters) whose perspective best illustrates your theme.
  • Antagonist: This character works in opposition to your protagonist(s), someone who wants to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing his goal. There should be a reason for this that’s justified in the antagonist’s eyes.
  • Supporting characters: While your remaining three characters fit into this category, it does not mean they will all be the same. To ensure that they each have a unique relationship with your protagonist, choose one of three ways these characters are bonded to him or her: (1) through friendship, (2) a mutual goal, or (3) obligation.

You now have everything you need for the final step of the Puzzle-Piece method.

Sequence of Events

A sequence of events is essentially another name for an outline. It’s a list (in this case, of three) major plot points in your story.

Event 1: Beginning

  1. Characters: Who is present? Unless there is a specific reason for them not to be there, your protagonist should be present. Your antagonist can be present, if they will be an active force in the story. Try to avoid more than two supporting characters to avoid overwhelming readers.
  2. Setting: Where are they? Put your characters somewhere that introduces your overall setting. Give readers an idea what they’re in for.
  3. Theme: What happens to them? Make sure the actual event introduces your theme. If you picked cross-species warfare for a science fiction story, illustrate or at least allude to that conflict. If you’re working on a romance with a theme of love at first sight, we should see the lovebirds share that initial zing, or meet them both in a way that shows how they could work together.

Event 2: Ending

We jump to the end next to prevent plot holes!

  1. Characters: Who is present? Unless they have sacrificed themselves or left the story, your protagonist should be present. The same goes for your antagonist, if he or she is still alive, and hasn’t been removed. Your most important supporting characters should also be present, at least in the thoughts of the protagonist, if not in person.
  2. Setting: Where are they? Choose a dramatic location from the scope of your setting. This is the finale—it should have a grand stage. This means something different depending on your story’s genre.
  3. Theme: What happens to them? Your final event should complete the exploration you began. It should conclude your protagonist and antagonist’s developments; it shows every character’s final stance on your theme. Show how they have grown. For instance, the protagonist of a romance story dealing with a theme of forbidden love may find the courage to embrace their partner, no matter who says they cannot be together.

Event 3: Middle

Now that you know your beginning and end, you can begin to bridge the gap without fear of contradicting yourself.

  1. Characters: Who is present? Your protagonist is a must. The antagonist should also be present, as a force to drive the conflict, if not in person. Any supporting characters you want to develop should also be present.
  2. Setting: Where are they? Consider a scene location tied to whomever you want to grow the most.
  3. Theme: What happens to them? The event in the middle of your story serves as a measure of growth for your characters. Whatever situation you put them in should show how each of their stances has changed. Change is objectively good for the reader, even if not for your characters. No one wants to read a book about people making the same choices and suffering the same consequences, repeatedly, without so much as a revelation. At this middle event, characters who refuse to change should fall in some way, and learn from it. This facilitates growth. For instance, if your protagonist in a story with a theme of class division refuses to bend on his stance that the rich are worth more than the impoverished, he may find his fate in the hands of those he deems lesser.

Connecting the Dots

Think of your Sequence of Events as three dots to be connected. All you have to do is write a line from one to the next. Your Sequence of Events gives you a framework of what can happen in your story. For instance, if your novel starts with your protagonist suspected of murder and your middle event sees them outrunning detectives on main street, there are only a few things that can happen between those points that will make sense. You know the detectives eventually find your protagonist, so a few scenes showing their investigation are in order. So, too are some scenes of your protagonist doing whatever he or she needs, to stay hidden. Say this story ends with your protagonist being declared innocent in court. That means that, between your middle and ending, you’ll need to have your characters discover the real murderer. These three starting events lend themselves to many others just waiting to be added to your sequence.

The way you proceed is up to you. You can continue to brainstorm new events to add between your big three. You could write your way from your beginning, to your middle, and ultimately your ending, if you’re more spontaneous. Whichever way you go, the Puzzle-Piece method of plotting a novel gives you a solid framework to get started.


Note from Jane: if you enjoyed this post, Justin offers a full video course on the puzzle-piece method of plotting, complete with transcripts and worksheets.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Justin Attas has written twelve novels across multiple genres including western, science fiction, supernatural, mystery, and crime thriller. Justin is also the author of the science fiction novel Strand: The Silver Radio. He offers a full video course on the puzzle-piece method of plotting, complete with transcripts and worksheets. Find out more at his YouTube channel or website.

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