Puzzles For Your Characters–And For The Reader

Whether your story is a magnifying glass-toting-foggy-streets-of-London tale of mystery and intrigue or just a common or garden CRF, the allure of an unsolved puzzle inspires a feeling of “wow, now something’s actually happening” in any willing reader’s mind. In a lot of ways, puzzles truly test the measure of a character.

Not every conflict is born of sinew and bone. In fact, many times it’s not: our conflicts are rarely wars and martial danger. More often, life presents us with mysteries to solve: how to raise your children? How to start a business? How to effectively communicate to this angry customer? Hopefully, we overcome these obstacles by wisdom, research, experience, and counsel.

But unfortunately, the “puzzles” I often see in young writers’ work require very little thought and/or can be solved with an overwhelming amount of strength or firepower. The glory of the puzzle is that it says, “Now you play by my rules. I cannot be solved by any other way than cleverness.” and in so being, is a colossal pain in the butt.

Puzzles that are optional to solve are some of the most annoying things to readers. They’re like those side quests in solo RPG video games: unless it gives you great loot or experience, no one cares. And since you can give out exactly zero loot in a book, this puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Make the puzzle more difficult than taking on an army solo, and make it so that there’s no recourse.

Now comes the tough part: you have to make the puzzle interesting, relevant, simple, and extremely difficult at the same time. A lot of people can make a difficult puzzle and make it relevant, but it’s often so complex that the reader’s confused, and when the reader’s confused, they soon become disinterested. You need to be able to hit all four of those elements in your puzzle in order for it to make the cut into a quality story. (because we strive for excellence here, no low-quality garbage do we accept)

Some people might object to me putting “simple” and “difficult” in the same category here, citing the reason that it’s “not quite possible”. Oh yes, it is possible, and so help me if you don’t make the puzzles in your story. I’m tellin’ ya straight: mind-boggling puzzles do not go over well with the reader. You take the puzzle out, or you make it simple and difficult. Those are your two options.

Even throughout all of Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, it could be solved with something as simple as “it was so-and-so all along”, and then filling all the Xs in the equation with “so-and-so”. Now, finding that X was extremely difficult, but in the end the solution was ultimately simple.

Use this method for any and all puzzles you may or may not insert into your story. Make whoever’s solving the puzzle clueless in the beginning, then follow that up with a tall order of information that needs to be gathered before the puzzle is solved. This establishes the point that the puzzle is difficult. Usually you’ve already thought of a way to make the puzzle relevant, but if you haven’t, now’s the time.

All this time, you need to be hinting that the puzzle will have a simple solution, and that the answer is in plain sight. Once you’ve established all three of those elements properly, you need to make it as interesting as you can by adding things the reader likes or cares about. After you’ve done all of that, you’ve got a puzzle you can be proud of.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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