by James Burks
It’s day 18 of PiBoIdMo and I’m here to give you inspiration or at least a small push towards the finish line. I’m sure that, at some point in your life, most of you have put together a puzzle. It could have been a small puzzle with only a hundred pieces, or a ginormous puzzle with a bazillion pieces. Regardless of the size, if you can put together a puzzle then you can put together a story. So let’s get started.
To put together a story puzzle, the first things you need are the pieces. That’s where your ideas come in. Every single idea you come up with is a piece of the story puzzle. This includes characters, settings, or lines of dialogue; you name it, they are all pieces of the puzzle. And here’s the best part: there are no wrong pieces. If a piece doesn’t seem to fit into the puzzle you’re working on, you can set it aside to use later.
Here’s an example of a recent story puzzle that I put together:
About a year ago, I sat down and tried to come up with my next great idea. I had just sold my first two stories to different publishers and was trying to come up with a third story that my agent could send out. I had the first piece of my story puzzle: a squirrel. I spent the next few days creating more pieces. I gave the squirrel a name (another puzzle piece), and I came up with a bunch of stuff that he loved to do (more puzzle pieces). After a few days I took all the pieces and arranged them into a simple story, drew some rough drawings (for illustrators, these are more pieces), and sent it off to my agent. My agent thought it needed something more, though, and at the time I didn’t know what that was. So I set the entire puzzle aside and went off to work on another project.
After about a month, my agent called and asked if I had come up with any new ideas. I hadn’t. Or at least that’s what I thought. After hanging up the phone I started running through a bunch of random ideas while surfing the internet. I remember contemplating Amelia Earhart (I think the biopic was coming out or had just came out), went from there to Penguins, then to the South Pole, and from there to a bird migrating south for the winter. (It’s always a good idea to let your brain off its leash once in a while and let it run free. You never know what it might bring back.) Something about a bird flying south for the winter ended up sticking with me.
I didn’t know it just yet but I had just found another piece to my story puzzle.
From there, everything seemed to magically fall into place. I took the bird migrating south for the winter and stuck him with the squirrel from my earlier story. A small part of my story puzzle took shape.
Then I started to ask myself a series of questions to fill in the rest:
Why do they have to migrate south together for the winter? There had to be a reason and it had to be big. I asked myself what would happen if Squirrel was forced to go along after he unintentionally sacrificed his entire winter stash of food to save Bird from an attacking cat. He would have no other choice; if he didn’t go with Bird then he’d starve.
But, where was the conflict? What was going to make my story interesting? Maybe they were like the odd couple. I imagined Bird as a total free spirit who just wanted to have fun, while Squirrel was a bit neurotic and was all about responsibility. Squirrel can’t stand Bird, but they’re stuck together. A natural conflict of personality that would provide for some humorous scenes.
This left one last question. How would the two characters change by the end of the story? What would their character arc be? In the case of this story, I decided to have Bird learn to be a little more responsible and Squirrel learn to have a little more fun. The story, at its heart, would be about finding a balance between having fun and being responsible. And by the time the journey ended, they might even become friends.
At that point I could pretty much see the overall structure of my puzzle. The edges were complete and all the major parts were coming together. All I had to do was fill in the missing pieces in the middle, which solidified as I wrote the outline and got to know the characters better. Two weeks later I sent it off to my agent, we made some minor tweaks, and eventually sold it to a major publisher. (Deal announcement pending; I’m drawing and writing the book for release sometime in 2012.)
I hope you find inspiration in my recent experience and are able to put together some great story puzzles of your own. Just remember that there are no wrong pieces. You may not use every idea or piece you think of right now, but every piece (used or not) helps you build your puzzle. Now go forth and conquer the book world!
James Burks has spent the last 15 years working in the animation industry on various movies and television shows, including The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, Space Jam, The Iron Giant, Wow Wow Wubbzy, and most recently on Fan Boy and Chum Chum. His first graphic novel for kids, GABBY AND GATOR, was published by Yen Press in September 2010 and is a Junior Library Guild selection. James is currently working on a picture book with Lerner/Carolrhoda entitled BEEP AND BAH (2012), and the graphic novel mentioned above.
James is giving away a signed copy of GABBY & GATOR! Leave a comment to enter. A winner will be randomly selected one week from today.
Thanks to James for the PiBoIdMo 2010 logo and badges!