◎ Using the Puzzle Method to Outline Your NaNo Novel

October 24, 2012

Many people go into NaNoWriMo unprepared and come out of the experience with a 50,000+ word novel. If the “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” approach hasn't landed you similar results, consider using a laid-back method to guide your writing for the month to come. I call it the Puzzle MethodThe puzzle method involves dumping out the pieces, putting together the border, and arranging similar pieces into groups until you have yourself a finished product.

Dump out the Pieces

Think of five things you want to have happen in your novel and jot them down in a common location. Random details, a key plot point, a location; whatever it is, write it down.

Here’s a goofy example.

*Food fight
*Kiss under apple tree
*Angry monkey
*Parent breaks arm
*Pepsi shirt stain

Establish the Borders

From here, you can begin to map out your motivations behind the story; in essence, what should a reader get out of reading my novel?

To start, consider what lesson (if any!) you want your novel to communicate. Are you aiming for a quick and fun read, or are you trying to communicate something more profound? In the case of this goofy novel that I'm never actually going to write, perhaps my goal is to write a commentary on the innocence and fleetingness of young love. Whatever your goals are, write them down and keep them close. Everything you do from here on out needs to revolve around your intended message/reader experience!

Group Similar Pieces (Events)

Now that you have some idea of what you’d like to see happen in your novel, you can work toward stringing these events together. How can one thing lead to another? How can you get from Point A to Point B to Point C using those pieces you plopped down in the first step? Write down whatever ideas occur to you (no matter how zany they may be!).

The angry monkey ravages the house. Parent falls and breaks arm. Pepsi stain ensues. 
The angry monkey throws Pepsi at the parent, causing them to slip and break their arm. 
The parent’s daughter has her first kiss under the apple tree with the boy who owns the monkey. 
The two kids met when he threw Pepsi on her during a food-fight at school. 

Group Similar Pieces (Characters)

At this point, you should have some idea of what function you want your novel to serve, some things you’d like to see happen in it, and how those things could possibly connect to one another. Now, consider your characters. If you don’t have a clear idea of who they are yet, simply give them a tentative name and assign them a few basic characteristics (smart, athletic, kind, etc)—you’ll get to know them more as you write your first draft! If you do have a good idea of what your characters are going to be like, briefly jot down a few key points and think about what their personality traits could contribute to the end goal of your story. Will a character's meanness temporarily disrupt young love? Will a character's change of heart restore it? What factors helped to make the mean character mean, and why do they or do they not change by the end of the novel?

Piece your Groups Together

Finally, consider how the events, details, and characters you wrote down previously could all come together to achieve your end goal. 

Will a grumpy grandfather see the boy and girl kissing under the apple tree and tell the girl’s mother? Will they be separated from one another as a result? How will they react?

What's the motivation behind the grandfather’s actions toward the young couple? How does this impact the overall story?

Will the parent's broken arm allow the girl to be un-grounded long enough to get groceries and accidentally rendezvous with the boy? How will this effect the story? What subsequent events could this rendezvous trigger? How will this scene tie in to my main goal/theme for the novel?

This is when some of the larger plot points of your novel will come together. Although you won’t end up with a scene-by-scene outline, you’ll have a good idea of how you can utilize your characters, events, and motivations to communicate (or to not communicate) your central theme or idea.

The key element of the puzzle method is to be goal-oriented. Know your overarching themes and plan accordingly!

Who else is looking forward to NaNoWriMo this month? Did this post help you? (If it did, by all means share it!)            

*Of course, novels are not like finished puzzles (as we often lose pieces or reshape ours to suit our tastes/needs), although there's certainly a parallel between the two concepts!


  1. Wow, this is such a good idea! So simple too! I'll definitely be using this method in the future!

  2. You are a writing genius!

  3. This is such an elegantly simple method. It really fits my thought process better than any other 'outline structure' I've ever seen. Thanks for sharing!

    (I took it a little further and it worked out pretty well: http://shescalin.tumblr.com/post/64968736050 )

    1. Wish I had a tumblr account so that I could comment on your blog, but alas...

      HECK YES! That's awesome. I currently have colored notecards taped to a long ribbon on the wall, although I think I'll try your method instead. You might consider buying and cutting up some colored notecards yourself to cut out the task of coloring in each jigsaw piece, especially since notecards are pretty sturdy. (But still, not gonna lie—coloring is FUN!!!)


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