The Puzzle Method

ACFW Advice, Authors and writing, Brainstorming, Friends of ACFW, Outlines, tips, writing 11 Comments

By Kristi Holl

Starting a new novel can be overwhelming. Our minds jump around as we fill dozens of colored sticky notes with snippets of ideas. Eventually we end up with hundreds of bits of information. Where do we start to make sense of it all?

One summer I found a solution when putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with my family. Initial excitement at the gorgeous mountain scene on the box was followed by an overwhelming pile of puzzle pieces dumped on the table. Many days later, we had a beautiful picture suitable for framing.

The parallels were clear. After that, I began to use a simple “puzzle method” to plan novels and calm that overwhelmed feeling I experience at the beginning.

Getting Started

When beginning a puzzle, I find the four corners, which provide anchors for my picture. I approach my novel the same way. The four anchors of my story include the setting, my main character, the plot genre, and the theme. (For example, the four “corners” of my novel-in-progress are 1850s England, a vicar’s daughter, mystery, and the 23rd Psalm.)

Plotting and Outlining

Next, in assembling a puzzle, I use flat-edged pieces to link the four corners and make a picture frame. Likewise, in my novels, I next connect the four corners (plot, main character, setting, theme). What are a few ways they are joined?

  • The plot shapes character growth.
  • The setting influences plot development.
  • The main character’s gifts and callings impact the plot.
  • The theme (God’s truth that you are illustrating) affects the climax and ending.

Framing the novel is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Always pray as you work. “God will not fail you nor abandon you [but will guide you in the construction] until you have finished all the work for the service of the house of the Lord.” (1 Chron. 28:20 Amp.) I need guidance in the construction!


After the puzzle frame is complete, you still have 900 pieces to fill the gaping hole in the middle. Use the picture on the box to sort the pieces by major color or feature. Leave the small details for last. Likewise, I next outline my novel with major pivotal scenes and unusual features and characters. This gives me some structure.

After adding main features to the center of your puzzle, you will still have about 400 pieces left that are mostly blue and green. Lots of sky pieces. Lots of tree and grass pieces. At this point you grow tired of looking for the “just right” piece. Occasionally you force a “nearly right” puzzle piece to fill the hole. You hope no one will notice and press it down to keep it from buckling.

It’s the same with our novels. But when a character or plot twist “buckles,” the Holy Spirit may be saying, “This doesn’t fit here.” We sometimes ignore the nudge, hoping our critique partner or editor or agent won’t notice the little misfit. But they do. Eventually we learn that when the Holy Spirit tries to “course correct,” we are wise to stop overriding His voice.

Veteran puzzlers advise that whenever you are confused, consult the image on the box. Remind yourself of the final picture. They also warn you to be patient. If you get frustrated, you might abandon your puzzle. Novelists also face confusion and frustration. We, too, need to stick with it so we can eventually say, “I have glorified You [down here] on the earth by completing the work that You gave Me to do.” (John 17:4 Amp.)

So, the next time you must organize a mountain of scribbled notes for your new novel, try this idea. Piece by piece, put it together with the puzzle method.

Use this simple “puzzle method” to plan your next novel. @KristiHoll #ACFWBlogs #writingtips Click To Tweet

Kristi Holl had forty-eight juvenile books published with both Christian and mainstream publishers before deciding to write for adults. When writing her eight novels for adults, she re-discovered her love for historical mysteries. One of those novels features Jane Austen. A Dangerous Tide is still housed today in the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England.



Comments 11

  1. What are great analogy! I love to do puzzles, but I’m far too seat-of-the-pants to plan my stories ahead of time. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally envy writers who know where they’re going as they write their stories! Usually I’m far more “puzzled.”

  2. I recently did a puzzle. While doing the interior, some sections came together quite easily. Other sections came together in a painstaking piece by piece. Writing can be like that too. Some sections will fall right into place: character development, setting description and mood, even a subplot. Other sections may come together sentence by sentence, thought by thought, word by word. Great analogy, Kristi.

  3. Kristi, I love this! Anchoring your four corners of you puzzle
    Vs. plot, setting, characters and theme is a great analogy.
    Then filling in details of story as you would puzzle pieces
    Is cool. ? Kelly, far more puzzled is cute! I think I might
    Be more of a planner, but that doesn’t mean my characters
    Can’t surprise me once in a while. Love this post Kristi! Thanks
    For all your hard work.?

  4. Really interesting framework. It really can be difficult trying to stitch together the fragments of a story idea into something coherent. This looks to be a great approach. Thanks, Kristi.

  5. Good analogy, and it can apply to other things. Y’all inspired a poem, hope you like it.

    The Flaners’ Fields reference is a tip of the hat to John McCrae’s poem.

    The puzzle-picture’s clearer now;
    not one I want to see.
    Lord, please could you tell me how
    to walk this ministry?
    How did all the golden yesterdays
    filled with light and hope
    lead into this blood-dimmed haze,
    pain’s labyrinth without scope?
    But here in cancer’s falling arc
    I will shine for You,
    a voice, like Flanders’ Fields lark
    with no aim but be true.
    ‘Tis this I’ll pin my faith upon,
    in this darkness ere the dawn.

  6. Kristi, this is a great idea! My first novel was definitely an evolutionary effort. I started with just a few ideas and spent a ton of time filling in details. It required a lot of re-writing (re-puzzling), but was worth the effort.

    I’m taking a much more structured approach with my second novel which I’m working on now. I’m using Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” which is similar to your idea. Start with the big things and continue down the level of detail. I’ll be interested to see how this works for me.

    Thank you for the post.

  7. As an avid puzzle doer, with the same approach as Kriti’s in doing a puzzle, I can really visualize her apprach to novel writing. Like it.

  8. What a wonderful analogy for writing! One day my 3yr old was forcing a piece on her puzzle and was getting upset. I tried to help her but miss independent wanted to do it on her own. I watched her and laughed as she stubbornly struggled.
    Then I felt God speak to me,’This is what you look like when you try to do things your way instead of mine’.
    I felt humbled and the smirk left my face ?.
    The lessons we retrieve from puzzles. ?

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