Writing

Structuring Narrative: The Imperfect Puzzle

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 18:16 min

Malcolm likes an imperfect argument—the perfect argument is too obvious. Learn how Malcolm builds an open-ended puzzle into his story, “The Ketchup Conundrum.”

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Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.
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So I liked to do puzzles as a child, jigsaw puzzles. But I always-- I always wondered why I liked doing jigsaw puzzles. It's not obvious why. To this day I find jigsaw puzzles baffling for this very reason. I am drawn to them, and I see other people are drawn to them. In fact, this summer my family took a big vacation. There was an incredibly complicated jigsaw puzzle. And it was-- we were in the French countryside. It was gorgeous. There was, like, castles. There were walks to do. And huge numbers of hours were spent in this, kind of, dark and dingy living room of this house we were in, working on a puzzle that we could have worked on anywhere. Right? The puzzle was more fascinating to us than the French countryside. Now that's pretty powerful stuff, right? That suggests there's something about a puzzle that is-- that has a hold over our imagination in a way that's not obvious. I mean, simply putting pieces together-- and by the way, the puzzle is not even a grand-- like, there are certain kinds of challenges that draw you in because there is a reasonable chance the problem can't be solved. A puzzle, there is a 100% chance it can be solved. It was once a full-- in fact, you have the picture in front of you. Right? So it's not even like it's some magical, kind of, high-end Einstein-level problem you're dealing with. No, no, no, no. It's a problem that has been solved for you. And they've given you a picture. And all you have to do is, like-- so-- but even that draws you in, right? So it's, like, that is, I guess, how strongly some of us are hardwired to want to just make the pieces fit. And I think on some level the-- writing, or my kind of writing, is about making the pieces fit. So I have-- like, I have my little shelf of objects. And I want to arrange them in a way that's compelling to readers. And it's the same-- it gives me the same kind of satisfaction as finishing a puzzle does, except that I don't have the picture in front of me from the very beginning. I have to kind of construct the picture. So it's a little, you know, maybe it's a little bit higher order puzzle, but it has-- it satisfies-- it satisfies me in the same way. There's that thing in puzzles where there are pieces that don't actually fit, but you convince yourself that they fit. Right? Like, and then you look, and you realize there's, like, a little tiny gap. And there shouldn't be a gap. And it doesn't quite-- Well, the one thing with writing is that you can-- you can actually-- if they don't naturally fit, you can kind of make them fit just by the way you write the-- you can kind of write your way out of the problem. And that always-- I'm always-- that part is always really fun to me. And it's a reminder of this really important principle, which is that the best kind of arguments are the arguments that are imperfect, because the perfect argument is too obvious. It's like saying-- the rule of the simile, or the analogy-- actually the rule of t...


Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.



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Comments

Pedro B.

It helped me to realize that sometimes we're struggling on our writing to create the perfect transitions, bring the perfect answers, but it is not that people are looking for it. Be interesting and maybe open for interactions, for the audience decide or create the answers and conclusions can be the best track.

Jody S.

Very interesting. I never thought about how engaging unanswered puzzles are. I just assumed they would be frustrating.

Brenda

Malcolm changes the perspective and expectation of the reader/listener. This is his magic sauce. I have this experience when I read his books. Now I am enjoying the same experience through his lessons. This class - so far - is an extension of the book experience. It includes me in a more active sense, because now it's personal. It informs me while I engage in a new pursuit. To write, to discover what I have to say. I want to tap my own voice, and I believe this class is a good beginning.

Sammy H.

If we can’t solve the problem, all we can do is a digression. It is brilliant.

Tracy

I love how cerebral Malcolm is. My brain gets a workout just listening to his lessons and I'm confident it will change my approach to whatever I attempt to write from here on out.

A fellow student

Can you please advise where to find the whole class workbook? the location of these seems to vary class by class.

A fellow student

Professionally I am not a writer but I am somewhat of a story teller. Part of my work is to help organizations understand and leverage the value of diversity in organizations. Often this works causes me to facilitate workshops on unconscious bias. Malcolm said something that caused me to pause the lesson to reflect and connect it to my work. I am of course paraphrasing here but basically many people are stuck trying to figure out what about a persons personality cause him/her to make a decision versus looking at a person context; how context influenced the decision. Context matters. I am really excited to learn from this course!

Leigh C.

In case anyone is curious, the article he talks about in the "Howard Moskowitz" section is "The Ketchup Conundrum" https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/09/06/the-ketchup-conundrum I'd be interested to know what article the criminologist wrote in the "Juvenile Delinquent" section was, to see how his view of it matches up with the experience of reading it. If anyone has found it, please share!

Ben W.

Made me wonder, made me think. Just finished Dan Brow's MasterClass where he emphasizes making big promised and making sure each promise is kept,,, as far later as possible to hold the reader. A kind of neat and complete perfection. But here's Gladwell talking about the peculiar power of the imperfect, the imperfect puzzle, that the ['irritation' of imperfection piques interest, involvement.... not completing all the pieces of 'the puzzle'. Like I said, gives one a challenge on which to think.

Noah B.

Very cool ideas about what makes us interested. How can we draw people in with incomplete ideas? In writing and messaging and management? When considering products, messages, writing that are supposed to engage a diverse user base, this makes it easier, because making them too complete limits the audience, as well as -- we learn from Gladwell -- making them less interesting. The challenge becomes leaving the right gap, cutting the puzzle so it's interesting and engaging for us to turn over in our minds, discuss with others, and maybe come closer to solving.