Plot Lines and Puzzles: How to Master the Craft of Writing

Anne Kaler Head ShotBy Anne K. Kaler

My plot line, you ask. No, no, I say, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you.

What I am really saying is that I have no plot and possibly no ending and very possibly no novel at all. . . on paper. What serves me as a plot is like an elusive butterfly floating somewhere in my mind waiting to settle down so that I can capture it. Quick, hand me that butterfly net, please.

The mind of a writer seldom determines the entire plot of a piece of prose before the actual writing begins. While the brain may be able to retain knowledge by repetition – think nursery rhymes or familiar songs – the mind does not work that way. Think of the familiar drawing of the brain as a series of connecting dots and lines. Each dot is a separate experience which must reach out and touch another experience to become active and solidified.

The picture on the puzzle box shows the finished product or “plot.” That’s why it is “cheating” if you refer to the picture on the puzzle box for guidance. However, sometimes “cheating” is the only way to finish a puzzle just as there are several ways to “cheat” your way through to the finished plot of a written piece. Such “cheating” is called, in writer’s terms, the craft of writing.

How is this an essential part of the craft of writing? What are some of these devices which trick your mind into thinking that you know the plot of your writing?

One way is to stand at a large table with your scribbled pieces of paper in hand. Drop each separate item of writing or idea into a separate pile. After all, those precious writings/ideas are things which you already know or have written. Step back and let yourself be impressed for a moment at the number of piles before you. Group like items together. Drop single and stray thoughts in a general pile. (You can deal with them or redirect them later.)

Isn’t this how you begin to sort the jumbled pieces of the jigsaw puzzle? You start with a predominant color or noticeable feature of the picture and group all the pieces which might go together into one area.

Once you have done this, re-read each pile to determine the most prevalent characteristic and name each category for what it is. (If you name it, you can claim it, so the theory goes.) For example, if you are writing a historical piece, you might designate categories about the political beliefs of the times, the character’s early training, prominent mentors, achievements, etc.

Back to our puzzle. Once you have isolated the puzzle pieces into categories, take one category and try putting two pieces together. Your success in doing this will give you encouragement to continue. Take the next pile of like pieces and connect as many as you can. Now you have a lot of little puzzles which should allow you to sense some order in their relationship to the larger picture. This visualization of where such smaller elements seem to fit suggests an order to your mind. For example, if the mountains are on the bottom of the puzzle, the sky will be on the top.

        Do the same with your written words and images. Distribute them on the table as if you were laying out news copy or a story board for an advertisement or movie. The simple visualization of the writings will suggest some logical order of progression or its lack of progression. One idea should begin to link with another. Other ideas will be stranded and need transitions. All will need rewriting to bring them into proper order and importance.

Once you have a general concept of the pattern or picture of the puzzle, you can return to your grouped-by-category pieces. Begin to add onto your smaller pieced groups until one group connects with another group. Arrange these smallest groupings into a possible order.

        Another way to achieve this sense of progression is to develop an outline to determine what is significant and what is secondary. Use any form of outlining with which you are familiar. Make sure that you make the larger items have many sub-items under it and that those sub-items have even smaller ones. Why? Because the best place to start writing is with an impression or detail recovered from your thoughts. Once you write that sense detail down, it will trigger other thoughts which will lead to deeper and more complex thoughts. Eventually it will lead back to the first or larger item in your outline.

For example, if the color violet provokes a thought, perhaps it was a memory of your grandmother’s funeral because she loved African violets and they died because no one thought to water them, you may have found a reason for disliking your uncle who lives in her house.

How ever you begin to arrange the order of your written work, keep it flexible and consistent. Work on the smallest points where you know or feel the most comfortable. Often these will be at the end of your outline in the smallest category. Then write your way back up to the largest item. You may see change happening as you narrow down your intent.

No, you don’t have a plot yet. You do have a two-pronged approach to writing. You have a storehouse of memories and experiences which are easily accessible from your brain and you have an active mind creating something entirely new to the world – and new to you. Congratulations… And keep writing.

2 thoughts on “Plot Lines and Puzzles: How to Master the Craft of Writing

  1. Anne, I love this plan. I”m not sure I can use it in the flash fiction, poetry, and other short pieces I love to write. I’m currently attempting a short story and perhaps I’ll try it there. Thanks for a great piece


  2. I gaze paused at frequent vivid recollections
    Images in particles as the Impressionist brush
    Memories, thinnest stones hurled across the bay
    My pictures incomplete seek more the artists paint



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