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.

I loved this class! It was so helpful and insightful, I only wish there were more lessons.

A look into Malcolm Gladwell's world of writing and his approach through him sharing what he thinks and how he works. I found it enlightening.

This was a good overview of narrative non-fiction that inspired me to go further with my writing.

A masterful intro: concise, intriguing and motivating. Looking forward to the class. Thanks, Malcolm, for your willingness to share your mojo with us.


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!

Richard O.

I am interested in technology, humanity and triathlons... does anyone have the same interest or have anything to share around these areas?

Payton T.

Nice thoughts. Actually many other countries have varieties of ketchups. Ukraine, for example, has quite a few different ones; BBQ ketchup, salsa type ketchup, spicy ketchup, etc...

Hannah P.

This chapter was both a revelation, and a relief. One comment I received on the book that I’m working on is that it feels like I am passionate about the topic - it is a puzzle to me - but that he wasn’t sure that that was a good basis for writing a book. I totally see myself reflected in Malcolm’s comments, and damn if I’m not in good company!

Jefferson S.

I really liked the idea of making promises you cant keep. In the same vein, the idea that it is important to withhold information sometimes. The most revealing moment of this lesson for me was when Gladwell was explaining the power of analogy and why it works. The idea that an apple and orange have a lot in common, despite the colloquial use of that comparison to connote difference, was really interesting. As Gladwell said, It got me thinking about what commonalities they do have and how I would describe them. I cared, I was engaged and that was because it wasn't a perfect analogy or a perfect fit.

M T.

Section 2 is excellent, thoughtful and interesting insight. I’m confident it will be helpful.

mark S.

That was a kind of cool unlearning of conventional writing/thinking/editing habits


Writing Ideas: 1. Psychology of Video Games 2. Psychology of Fake News 3. Representation in Media: What are the outcomes? 4. Pokemon Go & Community: Leaving the car behind and building community 5. Code camps: Should they exist? Are they another form of solutionism? 6. Dismantling your own arguments: Is my worldview blinding my own judgment?

Vinay A.

There can be perfect mystery sandwich that pulls you in. To me the puzzle of the universe is like that. I want to write about the process of the universe that is forever mystifying, and the gradual unfolding of it. I am talking about science. What Mr. Gladwell is saying makes sense to me. It is just that in my case the subject is that way and it has pulled me in forever. Now I want to present it.

A fellow student

pulls you in ! intriguing and skillful as an instructor . Clearly has great insights, experience