jig-sawing (creativity) Using the analogy of making a jig-saw puzzle to explain the creative process of story development. Imagine that you are making a picture puzzle, a jig-saw. You start with a single, barely recognizable element, and you begin to build from there. After a while, when you survey the pieces of the picture that you have put together, you can see the, initial, separate parts of the image, slowly forming into a whole. You can see distinct parts that look like they are going to join up, but they’re not exactly the right: something is missing. There are also pieces that seem like they will be part of the picture, eventually, but you have no idea where they should go right now. Overall, you have all the elements; some parts are complete, and there are some large, worrying gaps, but there are also some interesting little pieces that don’t seem to go anywhere. However, by slowly surveying, comparing, testing, and working, you find the matching parts and the whole picture is gradually and finally finished.
This jig-saw method is how to describe the creative process of imagining a story. It can happen just in the mind, it could be a story that’s told and re-told by the author while working out the details, and for a long work, for, a novel, a script or a play, it is a process that is likely to be worked out on paper, gestated in the mind and the work goes back and forth; thinking and writing a plan, thinking and revising, re-writing and re-planning. Making a story happens through trial and error: inspiration and obstacle, solution and problem.
While the idea of the creative process being a jig-saw may seem to be simply an analogy, I would suggest you treat it as a real and practical solution to the development of storytelling skills. Ideas are fragments; something appeals, something connects and a character or a plot starts to form. At the start, a story is missing a lot of elements, but if you continue to search for them you will eventually find them. Stories don’t simply appear finished and complete in the mind and if you simply wait for the whole story to appear you are unlikely to ever start writing or to put down more than a few meager notes. A fragment of an idea may seem like a whole story because it inspires you, it feels like a complete idea, but if you don’t work on it, think it through, put in the time and effort to develop it, then your story idea is just a notion; it will remain only a morsel of a whole story.
Something that’s true of any type of skill is that the more effort and the more time you put into creating stories the better you will get and the easier the process will become.
In terms of storytelling and creative writing, using the simple idea of the jig-saw technique as the key to understanding the creative process may seem weak; you might try it once or twice and find that it doesn’t give you anything substantial. However, if you try it and try it again, and keep working at it, then this method of thinking will start to bear fruit. If you want to learn to drive a car or play a musical instrument you don’t give up because it’s awkward and difficult to begin with. You need the same approach to creating stories. Early efforts will be patchy. Things will be clichéd. Ends will be missing. You might tell an entire story but no one who hears the story told, or reads it, seems impressed - no one gets it. In this case there is a gap between the compelling, involving story that you think you’re telling and how it’s understood. Then you learn by creating another new, even better story.
To improve your storytelling you learn how to make sure that there are enough elements in the plot so that stories don’t collapse. You understand how to clearly establish characters so that personalities and relationships are clear. You start to understand what will build interest and excitement, you learn to prune and cut what is unnecessary or confusing. Finally, as you develop your storytelling skills you become more adept. The piecing together of fragments becomes quicker, clearer. You don’t have so many failures. You can make a specific focused effort and produce an idea to solve a specific plot or character problem. Finally, you have learnt how to create stories.
Using this simple idea, the jig-saw technique, will work if you give it the time and effort to develop. Also, there are ways to start using this method that can make your progress as a storyteller far easier than others.
Jig-saw technique: fiction from fact: If you’re going to create a story using the jig-saw technique you need material: ideas, events, people, places, moments; elements that you can piece together. You can rely on your own experience, you certainly will use your own experiences, but it is far easier to start from a clearer and more certain foundation; a story that already exists.
So many stories are based on factual events, either famous or little known. In the novels written by Robert Harris historical fact is used to develop original fiction:
Fatherland: A murder mystery set in Germany as though the Nazi’s had won the second-world war.
Archangel: A plot generated out of the Soviet, Cold War, era and based on the idea of Stalin’s legacy
The Ghost: A murder mystery surrounding a British Prime Minister accused of allowing prisoners to be taken from Britain for torture. A story using accusations made of the British Government, during the time of Tony Blair.
Engima: A story of intrigue, surrounding the World War II enigma decoding machine
Lustrum: A dramatization of Caesar and other prominent Roman figures.
By using pre-existing historical events and people Robert Harris has the material, a setting and characters, in which it is possible to imagine a fictional story.
Rather than waiting for inspiration working on a story from fact is a great support. History, or news, or documentary, gives the writer a story world, past events, a range of characters, and a storyteller can pick and choose, and create making their own fictional version or alternative – a new story. Once the work on the plotting for the book begins, if there is a blank in the imagination, it’s possible to fill in any gaps in a story by doing research; the writer reads up on their subject and finds related material.
With this approach the writer uses their jig-sawing skills to shape and prune their story until it’s shaped it into a well-structured and engaging plot and while this can still require a lot of work, it is better than starting from a blank page.
To work from fact you do not necessarily need to use famous people, and your sources can be TV, Books, newspapers and magazines. For example the feature film The Fast and The Furious was developed from a magazine story. To get to grips with creating fiction from fact, and if you wanted to try your hand at writing short stories, rather than a full-length novels to develop your storytelling skills, then you might look for short factual events; incidents, short episodes.
A foundation in Character: Dashiell Hammett and other writers such as Raymond Chandler, Colin Dexter, and Carl Hiaasen base their stories on a character that the author uses again and again. This approach is probably the most certain way to have a successful writing career that can span both books and films.
While all the characters in a book will have some relationship to their author one often gets a sense that the fictional hero or heroine of the tale is an idealized alter ego of the author. Certainly, the Op and Sam Spade stem from the experiences and viewpoint of Dashiell Hammett, (both author and fictional characters were private investigators) while the characters of the fictional forensic pathologists Kay Scarpetta and Tempe Brennan relate in turn to the career and knowledge of Patricia Cornwall (who worked for several years in the world of forensic pathology) and Kathy Reichs who is herself a forensic pathologist.
The link between fictional character and author does not have to be as close in terms of professional life as is the case with Hammett, Cornwall and Brennan. Colin Dexter who worked for the Oxford Examination Board had no experience as a detective, but he created Detective Inspector Morse. However, like Morse, Colin Dexter is university educated, is intellectual in his pursuits, is rigorous in his use of English, and lives in the environs of Oxford, so it is easy to see how Dexter’s own life provides a setting and personality for his fictional character. But of course Dexter was never a police officer and has never investigated a murder; unlike Inspector Morse.
While a fictional character may be created primarily in the mind, as an extension of the author’s personality, you can still use fact to support a fictional character. In the Sharpe novels written by Bernard Cornwell, his hero, Richard Sharpe, fights in Portugal as a soldier in The Duke of Wellington’s army in the early 1800’s and the setting for these stories follows the campaign of the Peninsula War.
In Sharpe’s Havoc, the eponymous hero fights at Oporto, in Portugal, in May 1809 and the action and geography of the fictional story closely follows that of the historic battle. In the actual fighting the French drove the Portuguese and British across the river and this is what happens in Sharpe’s Havoc. At the end of the novel, Sharpe and his men set up their defenses in a Catholic seminary, and this building, its shape and position can be seen in the maps of Oporto used at the time of Wellington. The skill with this kind of fact-into-fiction storytelling is to meld the fictional Sharpe into the historic events and to give him a task that will create a specific and significant story for his character.
Bernard Cornwell has also used this approach to write a trilogy of books based on the legends of King Arthur. From both the Sharpe novels and the King Arthur trilogy one can see how fictional characters can take on historical roles and the fictional historical novel is of course a recognized genre with books such as The English Patient and Cold Mountain using this type of authentic historical setting for their stories.
Another approach to mixing fictional characters with other sources when creating stories is used by Anthony Horowitz. He has created a fictional spy, Alex Rider, who inhabits a world very similar to the fictional world of James Bond.
Alex Rider is a boy of only 14, but works for MI5. In both series of books, James Bond and Alex Rider, there are secret agents who use specialized secret gadgets, who get involved in dangerous chases, and defeat arch-villains who want world domination. This means that with Alex Rider, a new fictional character has been created, but he exists in a fictional environment created primarily by another author, Ian Fleming.
While this approach to storytelling, re-working setting and characters, is very specific in terms of the similarity between Alex Rider and James Bond, this is often used more broadly when authors write using the genres of fantasy or sci-fi, where the type of worlds created by established authors have many features which are used by new writers.
The fantasy world of the Harry Potter books has some overlaps with the world of Lord of The Rings, where the mystical and magical creatures in these stories have similar powers and characteristics. There is the evil Lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings and the evil Lord Voldermort in Harry Potter, and in both a young hero is tasked as part of his destiny to be the one who destroys the evil Lord. In fact with any forms of genre writing, vampire, crime, SF, Fantasy, the author is using a pre-established set of conventions for character, plot and setting. New authors often feel that genre writing is less original and therefore less good, but writing a story in a setting that attracts and satisfies is in fact often what keeps an author going, and supports them in creating their own original stories.
A Foundation in Environment: An author can rely on a single character as the focus for their writing, or work from a range of characters that inhabit a similar environment. The author Edith Wharton writes about American high society, the society she lived in, and she uses both male and female characters to carry her own personality and ideas. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age, nineteen-twenties America, where his own relationship with his wife is displaced into several of his novels using a range of characters. Once again the key to working in fiction is to start from a clear situation and build upon this foundation rather than trying to create an entirely new world
Problem solving: One way to generate a story from actual places and situations is problem solving. If you wanted to rob a casino, how would you go about it? In this case you would create the story by planning the crime.
The novel, The Eagle Has Landed, was developed by Jack Higgins, from the pre-existing idea where there was a plan during World War Two to capture Winston Churchill; just as Mussolini had been rescued by German paratroopers from Italy. Setting himself this creative storytelling problem (How would it be possible to assassinate Churchill) Higgins found a location for it to happen and created characters to carry out and thwart this endeavor. The same approach has been used in various stories; robbing the Crown Jewels in The Jokers and a casino in Ocean’s Eleven. This problem-solving idea can be used on almost any scheme you want to choose and the difference between this approach and an idea based solely in the imagination is that one can research how the Crown Jewels and casinos are protected, so that it’s possible to plan a crime and generate the story through research.
Semi-Autobiography, Roman à Clef: Fiction can also be very close to real life with the actual events compressed and re-ordered for fiction and the names of the characters chosen to conceal the person. Writers who have used this method are Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Henry Miller, Silvia Plath and Jack Kerouac. In this kind of writing the skill is to recognize what will make an interesting story from the events of your own life and how to structure them into a story for drama or prose.
Originality: Given that successful professional writers are developing their stories using other lives, their own lives and they develop ideas from other fictions it becomes hard to find any piece of work that could be defined as completely singular or original in its conception. Working from this understanding, the job of an author is to create stories through gathering, choosing, ordering and structuring rather than from the far more ephemeral and mysterious thing that creativity and originality is supposed to be. A writer is like a cook gathering ingredients, putting them together, seeing what elements they like and what appeals to them and this is why the idea of jig-sawing and learning how to jig-saw is the key to imagination and storytelling.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019