Puzzle Pieces (writing)

Not everything in a story is a mystery meant to be solved.  There’s a difference between a plot hole and a deliberately ambiguous point.  This has become lost lately as writers and audiences have taken to analyzing every little moment for signs of greater significance.  One of the great things about the internet is that it allows us to easily find people who share our interests.  One of the bad things is that it allows us to overanalyze the smallest details in hopes of discovering some terrific secret.  Some writers even enjoy playing that game now.  Some creators have become masters of the art form, where EVERYTHING means something else.  More creators have become masters of emulating the art form, where EVERYTHING looks like it should mean something else, but when it ultimately doesn’t, everybody is talking about something else so it no longer matters.

I am not one of those writers.  I care about my stories, and I enjoy foreshadowing and hints of things to come when they’re appropriate.  But I don’t go out of my way to imbue every paragraph, every line of dialogue with plot significance.  I am not usually interested in presenting a puzzle to be solved.  I want to share an entertaining story, but for the most part, if you’re trying to figure out my plots before they finish unfolding, you’re probably not going to.  It’s not that my plots are complex.  It’s because I’d much rather you be invested in the characters and their struggles than in trying to outsmart the story.

The danger of hypervigilance is that of missing the point.  When we analyze a scene for some secret clue that might be relevant twenty scenes later, we stop paying attention to the bigger picture.  We’re so busy scanning the background and dissecting the narration that we might miss what’s going on in front of us.  That’s actually one of the signs of autism, to focus on the wrong thing and miss out on some important detail.  Show an autistic person a scene from a movie with a light bulb swinging back and forth in the background, they’ll just as often focus on the bulb and miss the conversation between the characters up front.  But the conversation is the point.

At my writer’s group, the DFW Writers Workshop, we present our work aloud for critique.  Some people would rather give out copies to be read.  I used to think that made sense.  We aren’t going to read our book aloud to all the people who buy it, so why not present the story in a format it will be enjoyed?  But then I noticed the difference in critique a person reading gave versus a person hearing.  Reading people almost always focused on punctuation, grammar, formatting, all those details that are certainly important but are part of copyediting, not story editing.  The listeners talked about plot and characters and dialogue.  Their advice always ended up being far more valuable and insightful, versus the mechanical, technical advice of the readers.

Copyediting is an important job.  Having recently self-published a short story anthology myself, I can tell you that it is an underrated part of the process.  My own book has its share of formatting and typo issues, and I worked my ass off to try and prevent that.  Still, if I have to pick between a few typos here and there versus an interesting story, I’ll take the story any day.  (Though with a good editing team behind you, that isn’t a choice you have to make.)

The details matter but when we focus too much on those details, we run the risk of creating hollow work that has the illusion of depth but is nothing more than a house of cards.  The reboots of Man of Steel and Amazing Spider-Man sought to add depth to these characters by giving them complicated backstories that interweave elements of their origin throughout the narrative, and both end up being silly, confusing, and even contradictory because of it.  The Ninja Turtle reboot literally ties everything around April O’neal because that’s the thing stories love to do at this point.  Although the movie actually simplifies the Ninja part of the turtles to the point that it strains believability.  That’s something, considering the turtles have never been about realism.  Still, the writers couldn’t figure out a way to tie the Ninjitsu elements to April, so they settled on the laziest solution.

Comic book superheroes are guilty of this sort of “everything is connected and means something” continuity.  Mostly because a writer at some point will decide that Mystique is blue and Nightcrawler is blue, therefore, they must be related.  Steve Ditko thought it was stupid that the Green Goblin ended up being someone Peter Parker knew in real life, and indeed, it is.  But it looks dramatic and it creates a relationship and a mystery to be solved.  If the Goblin had just been some guy, he probably wouldn’t be the classic villain he ended up becoming.  Still doesn’t make it any less silly.

The end result is that we now live in a time when everything in a story is a significant plot point.  EVERYTHING.  It’s exhausting and ridiculous, and it’s taken away the quiet moments where we can simply enjoy a story without being expected to analyze everything or be impressed by the clue the creator inserted on the first page that will tie everything together.  We’ve lost sight of characters, replacing them with machine-like working parts that turn to keep the story going.

There are exceptions.  Quentin Tarantino has made a career of digressions and story dead ends, but the characters are interesting and there is a sense of momentum even as things unfold in their own way.  Kevin Smith’s early films had a similar aesthetic.  And then there are accidental plotless movies like Godzilla, which imitates a story without actually telling one, but no one seems to notice that.

It’s not that I mind puzzle piece stories.  There are great puzzle piece stories that are true masterworks of fiction.  But just because a story requires a flowchart to understand or one can find significance in every line of dialogue that doesn’t mean it’s sophisticated.  It just means it’s complicated, which isn’t the same thing.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted August 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you’re making a lot of the points you do when it comes to writing, Lee. It’s frustrating to me that a lot of clever ideas that once served to add extra layers of fun or depth to stories have just been corrupted into cheap hacky tropes that are used to trick readers into believing they’re reading or watching something much smarter than they are. I’ve long suspected that part of the problem is people being embarrassed by their love of genre stories, and thus attempt to add these layers in order to prove to themselves that their entertainment is clever enough for adults.

    And it’s a shame, because I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about foreshadowing, symbols or finding interesting connections between characters in a work. That stuff, done right, can be added fun. But it shouldn’t be the focus of the story. Watchmen, for example, is full of such things, but you can read the story and never worry about that stuff. I myself didn’t notice much of it until my second read through. Essentially, it’s seasoning rather than a meal.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted August 22, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      My comparison is Justice League: Unlimited. I remember watching the first season and enjoying it on an episode by episode basis until halfway through the season, I realized things were connected in ways I hadn’t noticed at first. It was subtle, and almost all the episodes stood on their own. The overall story arc was just another layer on top of something already great. It didn’t feel gimmicky, even as it made reference to episodes of Superman: The Animated Series that were important plot points.

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