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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.”

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

a perspective from a renowned journalist and author has definitly helped considerably when i am as naive as i am. how to create a story that can be made to capture a reader is what i was after but i learnt so much more than that. thank you

Amazing! I'm eager to implement some of the insights that Malcolm explained about.

He is an inspiring teacher. I have read three of his books and enjoyed them all. The class really makes me think more about what I write.

It would be challenging to print what could be improved because I enjoyed listening to Malcolm so much that I skipped the workbook altogether - for now. Malcolm is great at knowing both what is interesting and what is important. The combination of these allowed me to both learn the main points of what he was trying to get across and to remember them.


Karen G.

Very insightful approach to writing. I was intrigued by his process (sections with numbers) and became curious about how to write a story in which the sections are themselves stories... anyway, thank you!

Steve B.

Loved the lesson, and was fascinated with the tabu breakings, that Malcolm showed. Did the assignments and interestingly found that the conundrum was semi-solved, with an existing variety (after 16 years of its being published) but lo and behold, at least in my local market, they are still dominated by, yep you guessed right, Heinz !

A fellow student

I like the atmosphere of this teaching, in particular. I am more successful at my comedy than my novel as I just kind of be me and sprout off and people love it, this has released the heavy burden so often put on writing which puts us into a confined box that cramps our creativity. A truly inspired lesson thanks x


This helps me understand the frustration I feel when writing for work. I think I try to tie things up too neatly and then the interesting nuance, and even the depth feels strangled out of it.

A fellow student

Does anyone think not finishing the thought also works with film and video narratives?


I really enjoyed this lesson. It gave me some great ideas on dealing with a subject that I've been wanting to write about. That said, I have a funny story. In this lesson, he refers to the ketchup story that he wrote. As it turns out, earlier yesterday (even before I bought my subscription to Masterclass), I was reading an article that linked to Malcolm's ketchup story. I read the entire story...again, yesterday. Then, this morning, as I was browsing Twitter, one of the promoted posts was an ad for Heinz ketchup, stating "There's a Heinz ketchup for everyone" and displaying a photo of 3 different kinds of Heinz ketchup. So, imagine my surprise when Malcolm discussed this very article in this lesson. And that's my story.

A fellow student

I think one of the most powerful things about creative nonfiction is that it can motivate the reader to do research of their own and ignite passions or interests in topics the reader had not considered prior. When Gladwell spoke about the unfinished story of why some children run away from some schools, that is what I thought of.

A fellow student

As a theorist, I find the beauty of imperfection in the seemingly oddity of modeling assumptions. Sometimes a slightly strange setup brings very interesting predictions.

Brian H.

6:35 “I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for writers to make promise they don’t keep.” That depends in part on the stakes of the promise and the expectations of the reader. If a mystery writer gets to the end and doesn’t tell you whodunit, you will be disappointed. Because of the genre, you expect an answer right from the beginning. If, on the other hand, the ketchup problem isn't solved, I’m not as disappointed because I wasn’t necessarily set up to expect an answer. Big stakes also demand an answer. Some novels set you up to expect the mystery of life to be revealed by the end. Even though the expectation is impossible to meet, the stakes are so big that when the answer isn’t delivered, you are disappointed.

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.