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On Story Structure: Ariadne’s Thread

Ariadne's Thread: It was a small gift to offer him a way out, but we remember.

Ariadne's Thread: It was a small gift to offer him a way out, but we remember.

Writing this blog, I’ve said more than a few words about my childhood. One bit that stands out for me is a phase I went through in Middle School. For a while, I stopped writing. I stopped drawing or playing video games. I gave up most of my hobbies to focus on a new obsession: for six months (maybe a year) my only creative interest was mazemaking. Never got a book, and I certainly didn’t have the amazing wealth of the Internet available to teach me in six easy steps. I just taught myself, start to finish.

I wasn’t willing to let that be an excuse for poor quality, though. I had some 99-cent workbooks packed with hundreds of mazes, but they were all garbage. I wanted mine to be works of art. I wanted every maze to be perfect — with as long a path as reasonably possible, and always exactly one solution.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about the old “start at the end and just work backward” trick, so I’d design the maze in both directions, meeting at the middle. And, in case none of that sounds difficult enough (for a twelve-year-old), I was doing this all by hand, on graph paper. It was a tedious process.

There was one trick I learned, in all of this, that made a world of difference. It was just something I made up, a starting point, but it changed my mazes from boring, huge timesinks into real challenges that I could make from beginning to end during just one Pre-Calculus class. It wasn’t that big a deal, either. I just started with a big empty rectangle, and divided it into sections.

At first I used four sections, with one vertical line and one horizontal line each dividing the maze at the middle. I left exactly one space of opening from one section to the next. That guaranteed my “only one solution,” as long as I made sure the maze passed through each section, because I knew none of the side paths could ever get across that boundary.

It was effective but obvious, so I soon learned to mix it up a little. I’d offset the divider lines, make them jagged (so they wouldn’t stand out as well once the rest of the maze was filled in). I also quickly moved beyond quadrants, until a single maze had six or ten or twelve sections, all of different shapes and sizes. The smaller those boxes got, the faster I could draw a path across one, but the more challenging my solution got.

That technique, all by itself, dramatically improved my mazemaking. I learned how to draw the solution on a mostly blank page, with a handful of solid lines doing all the heavy lifting for me. Once that foundation was in place, I’d fill in little cross sections and dead ends and misdirections until the solution disappeared, my guidelines blending in perfectly with all the decoration.

What a Maze Can Teach You about Fixing Rough Drafts

Maybe I wasn’t writing a lot at the time, but I still found myself learning writing lessons from this new pastime. One of the things that struck me most — and probably the thing that appealed to me in the first place — was the similarity between mazemaking and storytelling.

I’ll talk more about that tomorrow, and tell you just what a maze can teach you about fixing rough drafts. Then on Saturday I’ll talk about how to help your readers fall in love with your story. That’s what it’s all about, right?

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

2 Responses to “On Story Structure: Ariadne’s Thread”

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    Sweet! Divide and conquer. I could program that.

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