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.
Get All-Access


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.

I learned much. I think this class is well worth the investment. I highly recommend this class to anyone who is interested in writing.

So very much about writing, about how it connects to being a human being, and trying to be a good human being,

Wonderful anecdotes and insights. Value of humility and differences between humor and melancholy are two tings that stood out to me.

Amazing stories shared from the bottom of his heart. Thank you for your sincerity.


A fellow student

Very great introduction and foray into how to create a story and make it interesting and complex.

A fellow student

I enjoyed the part on 'Delinquent Kids' whereby the criminologist ended his writing in an open ended style when he transferred the responsibility from him as the writer to the reader (so that the reader can think for herself). It gives a good sense of ownership for both parties. Life is often incomplete as well.


leaving room as a creator for the audience -- or other intended target(s) of a work -- to supply their interaction & interpretation as well as interest, attention, and emotional capacity is a magnificent point! that seems to speak to inductive reasoning's bottom-up thinking patterns; by cutting a main path through a jungle of ideas there's a core concept or plotline to follow, and by making an imperfect argument it allows the freedom for the audience to deviate and connect with alternative concepts or paths from many other mediums. this is wonderful!!

Maggie W.

Love this class; it gives me so much inspiration... I feel happy today. Thank you, Malcolm.

Jess M.

This lesson was intriguing and challenging. I hadn't realized that my implicit goal in my writing was to create something that was satisfying because it rounded out perfectly, like ketchup. But if the goal is to impact people with ideas, a perfectly rounded piece leaves no room for the reader to engage actively with their own development on the ideas. Leaving room for reader collaboration is a new skill I want to practice for my next piece.

Sandra D.

All my life people have said, "That's like comparing apples to oranges" as if it was self-evident that they were DIFFERENT even though, to my way of thinking, they are more ALIKE.. So I could nor follow their argument because I was all mixed up at the beginning. This was a terrible problem in grad school where people tend to talk about apples and oranges A LOT. Finally, somebody wonderful sees it my way!


‘We often love things because of their imperfections’. YES! The way that indie guitar strums often lag behind the beat or a vocal teasingly refuses to settle on a note (Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Mac de Marco). Dirty honking blasts of sax from putting the reed under stress. Quirky friends - give me a bit of endearing oddness over airbrushed perfection any day. A flaw in a hand-thrown bowl that says yes I’m not perfect but that’s why you dig me.

Tina W.

The story of Howard Moskowitz held me in captivity. How he wrote it was amazing and brilliant. I loved the analogy and the story. I makes you really think about deconstructing a story and presenting it in a way that drives people to think or react

Michael Y.

Love this; the idea that uncertainty can be such a powerful weapon is a real "aha" moment for me in terms of how I can, at times, use it in a way that gives the reader just the right spark of "huh" to love the piece as a whole.


Wow - I love his energy and enthusiasm and the point about "interesting" being the most important thing to consider. It's true, but isn't that an imperfect puzzle as well - what makes something "interesting"?? Delightful :)