Sunday, October 31, 2010

Puzzling Observations

Lately I've been assembling jigsaw puzzles, and (like everything else I do) I see some things they can teach us about novel writing.

There is a difference between a 100 piece puzzle (a short story) and a 1000 or 1500 piece puzzle (a novel).  They both need every piece to be put in place to finish them, to "see the big picture," but the larger puzzle, having more pieces, allows for greater subtlety.  Think of each puzzle piece as an action, description, line of dialog, conflict, etc:  a piece of your story.  Each piece is a tiny part of the whole, but none can be omitted without leaving a gaping hole in the completed work.  It would be nice if we could view our novels the same way we can view a puzzle to see what might be missing or how much is left to be done.

I think of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as an exercise in observation and memory.  Memory is handy -- it helps speed the work when we can remember where we saw a certain odd-shaped piece, or one with only half of a shasta daisy on it -- but we can get by without very much of it.  Observation is key, though.

I'm continually struck by the transformation, the ramping-up of my powers of observation as I work on a puzzle.  At first, half of the pieces are not even right-side up (in the context of a novel, they're incomplete ideas).  Soon each is readily classified as sky, and building, and grass, and tree, and... wait -- what is that?  And I don't see anything here that looks like this area by the walkway. Hmmm.  Even working from an image on the box (an outline), not all the pieces are easily identifiable.  Not this early.

As time goes on and I've been culling pieces, making and filling gathering-areas for grass, brush, trees, I begin making finer distinctions.  There are trees against the sky, trees against the wall, trees in shadow.  But then again, there are two walls, and the trees against the brick are lighter than the trees by the stucco.  Later when I'm in the middle of the trees against the brick, I see that the color changes left-to-right, a bit yellowish on one side, a bit more blue and slightly out-of-focus on the other end near the shadow.  Finally I see the boy leaning up against the tree trunk:  I hadn't noticed him in the picture on the box because he's so tiny, and even though he fits on a single puzzle piece I couldn't see him for what he was until he was in place, under his tree.  Observation has level upon level.

Many is the time that I'm looking for a piece of such-and-such a shape with this green and that purple toward one end, when I find out that the green actually changes as we enter this new piece, and the purple changes to pink.  The larger the puzzle, the smaller the pieces and the more difficulties and surprises there are.

As I complete (or nearly complete) sections of the puzzle, they become like scenes in a novel.  It's not always clear where they fit into the whole scheme.  Before I have them properly linked to the body of the puzzle, they may be in the wrong place, or they'll be upside-down.  When the connection is finally made, it's like magic, and instantly hard to imagine it in any other configuration.  A major part of that magic is that the proper place for the "scene" is defined by a dozen or a hundred relationships with the rest of the work -- not the physical interlocking of the pieces, but the lines, shadows, colors, and textures that cross the boundary between the newly added section and the rest, relationships that were not evident until, suddenly, they popped into relief.

Observation, layers of observation.  She drank her coffee.  She chugged her cup of Joe.  She sipped her espresso.  Slurped her Java.  Inhaled her caffeiney-beaney whip.  Yes, one combination is perfect; She sipped her coffee.  But don't forget that the mug was heavy, and she'd wrapped her slim fingers around it to warm them on that windy November morning.  She held it ready between sips, unconsciously concealing her mouth, her elbows on the sticky diner table.  Her eyes stared off, unfocused, her mind elsewhere, but she must have been smiling:  you could tell from the way the edges of her eyes crinkled.

1 comment:

  1. Great analogy! My family went through a phase where we enjoyed working on 1000 piece puzzles together. After we collected all the flat-edged pieces we'd assemble the frame. Then each of us would take a section and find the pieces that seemed to belong there.

    In my writing, sometimes I write individual scenes out of order -similar to putting together certion sections of the puzzle outside the frame.