Puzzles are usually associated with mysteries and thrillers, but the puzzle metaphor works just as well for story components. The primary difference is that puzzle pieces usually aren’t interchangeable. While writing stories, we can pick and choose puzzle pieces from myriad sources and mold them into a new whole.
Lately, I’ve been re-watching Fringe. I’ve seen it in its entirety once. I’ve seen the first two seasons (the ones that I owned) through several times. Now, I have the complete series and I’m watching the whole thing all the way through.
One of the things I like about Fringe is that the telling is complicated enough that even I’ve missed things the first time around. Saying it that way might sound a bit arrogant, but the truth is that most of what’s aired on public television—the small percentage of it that I’ve bothered to watch—is simple enough that there’s really nothing that surprises me. I’m not talking about shock factor, here; I’m talking story mechanics.
Stories follow patterns. The different components we use go together in different ways. The most creative amongst us can take the same components the rest of us use, throw in some unique pieces, and come up with something spectacularly original.
But this seems rare to me. Maybe it’s just that I’ve consumed so many stories that I’ve seen most of what can be done, but I doubt it’s that. Even with my consumptive reading habits, I’ve only read or watched a small percentage of what’s been created. Maybe it’s that I’ve studied how stories worked and know what kind of effects writers like to create and how they tend to go about it. I’m not exactly sure. But when I find myself saying, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!” it’s quite a compliment. Usually I do expect it.
The ability to anticipate what’s going to happen usually doesn’t spoil the experience for me. After all, I re-read stories and re-watch movies and television shows, because the stories are good regardless.
But it’s nice to be surprised. It’s impressive when something is foreshadowed exquisitely, and yet it still manages to surprise me. I love it when it happens, but it’s rare. And it’s even better when a totally new take on something is woven into a story, resulting in something exceptionally original.
So, your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to come up with something truly original, something you haven’t seen or heard of in another story, and think about how you could add it to your work in progress. Then, let me know what you think of the experiment!