Punctuality Rules!

Do Stories need Puzzles?

Do Stories need Puzzles?

Here’s the other thing about my Dad that confuses me. (Well, there’s more than two, but I’m trying to focus, here.)

When he reads for pleasure, he likes mysteries, or those adventure kinds of stories where the hero saves the world because he uncovered the enemy’s secret plan just in time.

If you give him a book that simply tells a story, though … he’s bored. He wants a plot that’s working to solve something, or to figure something out, otherwise it’s too mundane; there’s no point. Okay, I can appreciate that. I like books like that, too. Yet, if I hand him a book that tells a real-life story of defeating a terrorist plot, or saving the world by deciphering a code just in time, he says that’s boring, too, because it’s history.


No point? Boring?

Obviously my father doesn’t understand the point of a good story … It’s not just that they are entertaining, but they are about problem-solving.

The detective is presented with a twisty murder and must follow the clues to find the killer. The FBI agent catches wind of a plot to destroy the Capitol building and races against time to prevent it. How is that different than reading about the problems the Allies faced in deciphering the Enigma Machine in WWII? Or how we finally stopped the global flu pandemic in 1914? The way those stories play out fascinate me.

Puzzles aren’t limited to mysteries, though.

Even in “quieter” stories, characters in books face problems every day.

They may not be life-and-death, but there are always puzzles to solve. How to make ends meet. How to raise the children after the husband takes off. How to rehabilitate the troubled dog you brought home from the shelter. How to keep your close-knit group of friends together after college. How to find the girl who left the shoe in the ballroom.

The best stories have some kind of conflict, something that need to be solved or fixed or prevented.

Sure, that can be a person with a gun or a vengeful serial killer, but they could also be the character’s own memories that prevent them from succeeding, or the dysfunctional family that comes to him for help every minute of the day.

The trick as a writer (and not just a fiction writer) is to find the problem and tell how the protagonist solved it.

Because, obviously, keeping my father entertained is hard.

7 thoughts on “Do Stories need Puzzles?

  1. Kelvin Kao

    Perhaps your dad thinks real-life stories tend to be written like history textbooks, which aren’t always written in the most interesting or entertaining ways. I wonder how your dad react to romanticized version of real historical events or fiction based on history.

    Fiction does an edge for being more entertaining though, because they (the writers) can change the characters’ actions and the sequence of events for maximum dramatic effect.
    .-= Kelvin Kao´s last blog ..Puppetry Classes =-.

  2. --Deb Post author

    True stories CAN be written in boring, textbook ways, it’s true, but the good ones are NOT, but my Dad doesn’t like anything with a whiff of “history,” no matter how hard I try.

    But, really, that’s not the point. The question isn’t what my Dad likes to read, but whether you need to have a puzzle as part of a story, to make it a GOOD story?

  3. Pip Hunn

    I’m not sure you have to have a ‘puzzle’, per-se, but you definitely need challenges in your story.
    Puzzles are a great way of presenting a challenge:
    “How will I save this princess?”
    “How can I stop this disease / murderer / awkward facial tic?”

    Perhaps if the history books your Dad reads are presented without making the challenges that historical figures have overcome ‘real’ enough. This shows weak writing from the authors. After all, historical events aren’t noteworthy unless some challenge was faced down.

  4. --Deb

    Pip–this is my argument to him all the time. You don’t need terrorists and murderers to make a good story, but he only likes the kind of books where somebody is trying to solve something, and real life just won’t do. (I don’t think he’s read a history book since he got out of school.)

    I absolutely agree that stories need some kind of conflict to be interesting (because you can only read about a serene day at the beach before so long before falling asleep), but my argument with Dad is that it doesn’t have to be a Mystery to be a worthwhile story. But then, I don’t understand the sports thing, either, so…
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Do Stories need Puzzles? =-.

  5. Holly

    The point is, he wants to be able to solve the puzzle.

    He doesn’t want to read about personal challenges, character growth or development, he wants puzzles. Nor is it likely that paranormal events or romances interest him in the least.

    With history, true crime, he already knows the answer. That takes away all the fun.

    Let him have his fun. I am willing to bet that he never turns to the back of the book and reads the ending first.

  6. Mary Brown

    (That is awful! I’ve never understood people who read the last page. It would ruin it for me. 🙂 )
    The answer to your question is “Yes, if you want someone to enjoy reading it.” You’ve answered it yourself, earlier. You can only read about a quiet day lying on the beach for a short time before you fall asleep. There must be a reason to be there. It doesn’t have to be a murder or other crime, but some reason besides catching some rays. The writing course I started taking made it very clear that there needs to be a conflict to resolve for a story to be marketable.
    On the other hand, if you are just writing or telling a story for your own or others’ amusement or to pass the time or to relate an event, it wouldn’t need a puzzle, necessarily.

    It sounds like your dad is prejudiced against historical fiction, if he’s so sure he won’t like it but has never read it. That’s also OK. There’s enough to read without learning to like a new genre just because somebody thinks you will like it. Maybe he’s just being contrary. Some dads are like that!