Three puzzle plots: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Alchemist

Puzzle plots and what they can mean for new writers

We tend to associate puzzle plots with the mystery stories. Indeed, the main difference between a mystery and a crime thriller is that we expect the clues to be presented to us in a mystery, but in such a way that we do not guess the end before the detective does. In a crime thriller, we expect the course of events to reveal the culprit at the climax: we do not feel cheated if, in retrospect, there was not enough information to work out the answer beforehand.

However, I would argue that an element of the puzzle plot can be a powerful element in other kinds of writing. There are a number of examples we could take, but I want to focus here on the medieval verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anon, approx 1390, Ursula K Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea, and Paolo Coelho’s the Alchemist.

Puzzle plots are extended riddles, where the answer is implicit or deducible from the question. By this I do not mean to compare them with the 1980s ‘blank’ riddles, where a scenario is proposed, and the respondent has to ask questions of the questioner to come to the right answer.

What weighs many tonnes, but falls to the ground without making a sound?

Answer: snow.

The snow riddle is a true riddle because everything in the question is literally true, and it points to a unique answer: trees, falling rocks and other large objects make a bang. Rain drums as it falls. Planes do not ‘fall’, except when they crash. Falling leaves rustle. Only snow falls.

However, it is not merely a question, because the way it is presented is elliptical. By emphasising the sound it doesn’t make, the hearer is sent on the path of thinking about all the things that do make a sound. If the question had been: “What is white and falls to the ground?” then the answer would be easy.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is challenged to a ‘return blow’ game by an enormous green knight. The supernatural uncanniness of the knight makes his uncle King Arthur advise him to strike well so that there will be no return blow. Gawain duly beheads the knight, but, after the head has rolled among the trestle tables, the knight’s body walks over, picks it up, and tells him to be at the Green Chapel a year hence. Having done his best to kill the eery knight, Gawain can expect no mercy.

When the time comes, he sets off on a long journey, despairing that he will ever find the place. As Christmas arrives, he finds a castle where the lord, Sir Bercilak, puts him for the knight, and tells him that the Green Chapel is quite nearby, and he can take him there on the appointed day, three days hence. In the meantime, he proposes a game: an exchange of winnings.

On day one, Bercilak goes out hunting. In the mean time, his wife comes into Gawain’s bedroom and flirts with him. In the end, he allows her to kiss him but no more. Bercilak, on his return, presents him with the game he has hunted, and Gawain kisses him in return.

On day two, the same thing happens. The wife presses him harder, but, in the end, all he has to do is kiss Bercilak to receive in return the huntsman’s trophy.

On day three, the wife goes all out to seduce Gawain, but he resists, accepting only more kisses. In the end, she persuades him to accept her girdle, in green and gold, which she says prevents a man from being killed, no matter what an enemy does to him. However, he must not pass this gift on. At the end of the day, Gawain receives a fox skin, gives Sir Bercilak the kisses, but conceals the girdle.

The following day, being the day appointed, he goes to the Green Chapel, where the giant green knight appears with his axe. Gawain puts his head on the block, but when the knight swings the axe, he flinches. The knight chides him, and Gawain complains that ‘when my head comes off my shoulders, I cannot put it back again’. The knight makes two false blows, but on the third, he strikes, nicking Gawain’s neck. Gawain springs up, ready to defend himself, now that the return blow has been given, but the knight laughs.

The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the same Sir Bercilak, and the first two blows did not land because on the first two days Sir Gawain faithfully delivered his gifts in accordance with his promise. The third blow was a nick, because although Gawain broke his promise, it was in accepting the girdle, not in allowing the wife to seduce him.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains one of my favourite stories. It appears to be an epic tale of marvels. It is only at the end that we discover this was a puzzle plot, where the answer to the first test depends on the answer to the second test.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the story is premised on the Rule of Names—knowing a ‘true’ name gives a wizard the power to cast spells over another wizard, so wizards keep their names carefully concealed. However, the titular wizard Ged, casting a spell beyond his abilities, summons up a spirit, and with it comes a nameless creature from the underworld, which then, for the rest of the book, seeks to take Ged over. Because the creature knows Ged’s own name, it defeats him at each encounter. The puzzle is: how can a creature without a name be defeated, since names are needed to cast magic. After many adventures, Ged finally turns to face the creature, and names it with his own name, thus completing the puzzle.


In the Alchemist, the protagonist dreams of treasure, and goes out following his dream. This takes him through many remarkable adventures, but when he finally finds the place he is looking for, he learns that the real treasure is buried in the place he first had the dream. He returns, and obtains it. Although the treasure was close at hand, he could not have obtained it without going on the remarkable adventures, and these adventures give meaning to the quest.

All three of these adventures are magical. I am not suggesting that puzzle plots must either be mysteries or magic. Rather, I’ve selected them because, in each case, the reader cannot bring extrinsic knowledge to the question. A Wizard of Earthsea presents us with a logical system, the Rule of Names, where the solution is an extrapolation of the problem. Sir Gawain relies on the intellectual code of chivalry, but it gives its own definition to it. Its original readers would have been familiar with the code, but not with specifically what one is supposed to do in a magical adventure: magic takes us out of the rules of the ordinary, except, of course, that the tale reveals that the rules should be followed in exactly the same way as in ordinary life. The Alchemist has its own simple rule: the universe conspires to help if you pursue your dream. It is only after the protagonist, Santiago, has pursued it extensively that the universe gives up its secret.

These puzzle plots differ from mysteries in the sense that the reader could not actually solve the puzzle. Nonetheless, the reader, along with the protagonist, is challenged to solve the puzzle, or, at the least, the intellectual appeal is that we are facing an intractable situation for which we require a solution.

They differ from mere tales of wonder in that the solutions are genuine solutions within the world of the book. They are not in any sense dei ex machinis: extraneous elements from the cosmology introduced to solve the problem.

The response the author is looking for in a puzzle plot is “Oh, that is clever”, rather than “I saw that coming”. However, it is a cleverness of appropriateness. In a world full of wonders and adventures, things worked out in exactly the way they logically would have worked out, which happens to be the way that, in plot terms, they should have worked out.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of plot. Whenever I make a list of favourite books, they are always books with strong plots. I like the Odyssey, but no so much the Iliad, Great Expectations but not so much Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451 but not Nineteen-eighty-four. 20th century (and 21st century) anti-plot literary fiction leaves me entirely cold.

To return to Great Expectations for a moment, this is an excellent example of a literary, character-driven puzzle plot. Pip faces a mystery for most of the story: who is his unknown benefactor. He assumes it is Miss Havisham, but everything that we, the reader, know about Miss Havisham and her protegée suggests that this is highly unlikely. In the event, it is the convict Magwitch who is Pip’s secret benefactor—something which completely overturns his view of himself, but which we, the reader, could probably have worked out if only we had not been so engrossed in the storytelling.

There is a particular satisfaction in the ‘answer in the question’ nature of the Great Expectations plot. Much as I enjoyed Dombey and Son, it does not have the same sense of completion. By the end of Dombey, we are essentially concluding with the happiness of everyone who is left.

We are now in an era of new writing. Up to seven hundred years ago, books survived because people copied them by hand. Sir Gawain survives only in one manuscript. It is quite possible that, until its re-discover and popularisation in the 20th century, only a handful of people had ever read it. Six hundred years ago, books survived because a printer printed them. In the voracious climate of the Reformation, many books were printed simply because a printer could get hold of them. A hundred years ago, books survived because a publisher took them on. Twenty years ago, books only survived if an agent took them on. The now-famous story of JK Rowling’s multiple rejections show just how fragile that process is.

Today, anyone can write a book and get it onto the web as Kindle or eBook, and onto the shelves as a physical book at no cost to themselves via Amazon’s CreateSpace. Print-on-demand has finally come of age: it is possible to make a profit, even when you only sell one copy.

More fiction is written today than even before. The success of social programmes such as NaNoWriMo and writers’ sites such as Figment and Wattpad mean that authors who would never have had access to publication and the encouragement that comes from it are writing, receiving constructive criticism from their peers, improving, refining, and publishing.

Unlike the self-publishing (where you paid for printing a lot of books which then filled your garage) or vanity publishing (where you paid someone to publish it and they then did nothing with it) of the 20th century, the potential distribution of self-penned books is the whole wired-world, carries no capital costs, and carries no risk. Find an online tribe of people who like what you write about, and start to like your particular writing, and you could find that your readership is greater than any book—except the Qu’ran and the Bible—in the world up to the year 1200. You may never get paid for it, but neither did most of the people writing up to the invention of printing.

The explosion in numbers of writers also explains why it has been getting ever harder to get published, in the traditional sense. At one point, a printer would have taken a chance on anything that looked plausible and manageable. Later, a publisher would read the manuscripts sent to them. Later, most publishers would only accept manuscripts sent by a recognised literary agent. Twenty years ago, agents were reading full manuscripts, unsolicited. Ten years ago, they wanted fifty pages and a synopsis. Now, many ask for thirty pages, and a growing proportion is asking for ten pages. It’s not that agents have lost interest in fiction, or that their readers have short attention spans, it’s that an ever growing number of authors, many supported by professional, paid editors, are submitting stuff.

What this means is that if your book doesn’t completely grab someone in the first ten pages, it is not going to survive the traditional process. Many of the great books of the past do not do this. Some would argue that this pressure pushes writers to ever better writing. Actually, it pushes writers to a format where the first ten pages is essentially a short story of its own.

Clearly, the puzzle plot is not going to fare well with this kind of reading regime. A book can be enormously satisfying, and yet come across as the very genre it is about to subvert.

As a new writer, writing for the new media, these rules don’t apply to you. You don’t have to satisfy an agent, or a publisher, or the reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want to write entirely in upper case, and your online tribe likes that, then you can succeed. 1

I’m not advocating tearing up all the rules. Rather, I’m suggesting that breaking out of the agent-publisher-distributer model means you no longer have to write things which satisfy the format that bookshops work to. Want to write a ten page novel? Currently, anything under 50,000 words doesn’t qualify, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write something of the scope and depth of a novel, quite different from a short story, and confine it to ten pages. Or would you prefer to write about 300,000 words a time? Research suggests that people who buy eBooks prefer longer books. Actually, many people buying print books want longer books, it’s just that first-time authors are always told to keep it between 70,000 and 80,000 words because that’s what publishers are comfortable taking a chance on. A publisher who decided to print your 800,000 word tome and distribute it to every book shop in the world in sufficient quantities to make it economically viable would, quite literary, be betting the publishing house on it. As an eBook, or a print on demand, there is no risk.

Lest anyone think that this is something that only authors ‘not good enough’ for agent-publisher-distributor publication should be interested, Paolo Coelho, he of the Alchemist (above) is a big fan of distributing his work online, for free. And then there was that author who wrote a book (as far as I’ve been able to tell without reading it or watching the film) about different kinds of monochrome. That did very  well too.

If all that is the case, may I make a plea for plot, and especially for the resurgence of the puzzle-plot. If you’re a mystery writer, naturally you know all about puzzle-plots. However, for romance, fantasy, general fiction, Westerns, or any genre you care to consider, adding intellectual satisfaction to your story can (I believe) genuinely make it better.

As we approach NaNoWriMo 2015, unshackle your pen.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Before anyone shouts that ‘THAT’S SHOUTING’, let us remind ourselves that all writing was upper case until about the 3rd century CE.

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