I like jigsaw puzzles.
In the abstract.
Then there’s the moment where I dump a thousand pieces on my table-
-And realize that five hundred of them are pieces of sky.
It is tempting when constructing a puzzle to use sameness to baffle the solvers.
To distinguish small variations in the same is one of our most frustrating challenges.
We see this frequently visually, but it is also an insidious force in writing.
Any character who stands out too much, who displays divergent traits or personalities, becomes noticeable, recognizable, memorable.
How can characters like that be used for dramatic twists and revelations when readers are following their every movement with interest and anticipation?
If the clues aren’t hidden until the end, using characters that people are already watching makes it much harder to pull off the sleight-of-hand for a revelatory puzzle.
So either all of the characters become wildly over-the-top or the holders of secrets become bland or camouflaged in a larger crowd of sameness.
These are not the only options, of course, but often when I reach the end of a story’s twisting plot, I think of those sky pieces.
It is not that there is not a challenge in finding the right edges on five hundred pieces of blue.
It is that it is far more rewarding when everything has a point of interest and the cleverness of the puzzle relies on its construction rather than our boredom with sky.
I do not feel excitement when the secret villain is some unremarkable face in a sea of unremarkable faces.
I am excited by puzzles that present me a wealth of depth, of characters, of motivations, where my surprise is based on how much fills the sky rather than how little.
This is a week about the role of illusions, plot, and puzzles in stories.
If you are interested in my take on variety in puzzles, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.