From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

Structuring Narrative: The Imperfect Puzzle

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.”

Topics include: Don't Complete the Puzzle • Make Promises You Don't Keep • Case Study: Juvenile Delinquents • Case Study: Howard Moskowitz • Number Sections to Connect Disparate Pieces


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.”

Topics include: Don't Complete the Puzzle • Make Promises You Don't Keep • Case Study: Juvenile Delinquents • Case Study: Howard Moskowitz • Number Sections to Connect Disparate Pieces

Malcolm Gladwell

Teaches Writing

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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.

This is my first Masterclass and I'm very impressed with the quality of the instructor Malcolm Gladwell as well as the content. I've learned to construct my articles somewhat differently for more emphasis on the characters or narrative. Great job!

Fascinating, interesting, insightful, I learned to look at my writing work in several very different lights. It will take time for all of this to gel in my mind, but the process will be enjoyable. One of the best courses I've taken.

Malcolm was excellent in his incites and tips for writers! Thoroughly enjoyable class!

Loved it! Haven't started putting it into practice. Will definitely watch again.


Patrick B.

It was well done. What I like most about Gladwell is his ability/ease to go off into a totally different direction from an original narrative and never provides a reason for doing it. He peeks our interest to the point where we then ask why did he do that?

Neeraj B.

This has given me some terrific insights into how a writer may approach a work of the sort of non-fiction that Malcolm Gladwell writes.

Marcus L.

Marcus LyonsMinot, ND "The act of writing about others is not a trivial act. It’s not entertainment or a distraction. You read nonfiction because you’re in search of something powerful and fundamental about what it means to be a better person." Kicking off with an eye-opener already! Have been looking for ways to take the focus off me personally and making my writing more universal. This understanding of the reason why we read and write nonfiction is my first step to growing as a writer.

Graeme R.

Malcolm Gladwell is so intensely interesting and articulate, as he is in his writing. This is extremely exciting!


Enjoyed this chapter, he is one of my favorite writers. Malcom has great delivery. The story can be imperfect, the argument can be imperfect, but its interesting and stays with you, leaves you hanging, sometimes transferring the responsibility of the puzzle to the reader...I kept thinking of the movie Inception with its ambiguous ending as I was processing his comments.

Curiouskinda G.

Malcolm really makes the lessons come alive! And i could say it right from the offset. Fantastic!


Ideas I’m interested in: - Discovering ways to promote/implement sustainable farming/gardening practices in the regional area, and using that information to help the homeless/food banks/ assistance to low-income families - Holistic wellness methods and techniques, their origins, their uses, their significance, how well the product/technique works, etc., all backed up by extensive research - Positive psychology – the most effective tools and techniques to live a more fulfilling life and to bring yourself to a more positive overall mindset, ways to be more mindful and how it helps with everyday psychology - Traveling, the differences and similarities between different prominent and indigenous cultures, ways of thought and customs in which humanity is unified - Religion – the common or basic tenets of different religions, how they are related to one another, what they all share in common - The near death experience, spirituality, exploring what exactly happens to consciousness at the moment of death, exploring different accounts of supernatural phenomena and what can be explained about them, common elements of different supernatural experiences, etc. - Physics theories on alternate universes, time travel, “unexplainable phenomena” in science, etc.

Robert C.

"Imperfection" - this is why so many people like to watch American Idol. People want to see imperfection as well.

Robert C.

"Hard wired to solve puzzles". I wish Malcom would use his authority and insight to explore education and how we are different. Too much is forced on kids to pass all tests, be in the same mold (industrial btw). Show us, show governement, show academia, how we are different and don't need to all be the same in school. Neuroscience conflicts with this btw.

Dianna Z.

Still trying to figure out the first part (admittedly, I've never been puzzle-oriented myself - I would have gone for the walk in France), but I love love LOVE the numbered sections idea! Wow! That would make everything so much easier!