Editor Roundtable: Puzzle

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This week, Kim and the other Roundtablers continue piecing together global internal genre stories with the 2018 independent film, Puzzle. The screenplay, an adaptation from a 2010 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, was written by Oren Moverman and directed by Marc Turtletaub.



The Story

Genre: Status-Sentimental, with Love and Performance subplots, excellent example of Virgin’s Promise structure

  • Beginning Hook – When Agnes, a compliant and change-averse housewife, feels herself come alive while completing a puzzle she received as a gift, she is eager to get another. But when she learns the puzzle shop is a long train ride away in New York, she must decide whether to brave the discomfort of travel or stay home. She travels to New York where she buys two new puzzles, and sees an ad “champion desperately seeking puzzle partner.”
  • Middle Build – Agnes meets Robert and agrees to be his partner for the puzzle competition, but feeling unable to tell her husband Louie the truth about what she wants, she lies to keep the peace. The more she experiences the power of her own mind, the more outspoken she becomes, leading to trouble at home with Louie. Her involvement with Robert increases, as do her lies, and after a particularly bad fight with Louie she and Robert have sex. When she accidentally oversleeps and then arrives home late to Louie waiting up for her, he asks her if she’s having an affair. This time she tells him the truth.
  • Ending Payoff – Agnes and Robert compete at the National Puzzle Competition and win. But when it’s time for her to join him in a flight to Brussels for the International Competition, Agnes goes instead to the lakehouse with her sons to pack it up for sale. She calls Robert to tell him she is not joining him even though she loves him. Instead she takes a trip on her own to a place she’s always wanted to visit, Montreal.

The Principle – Kim

Kim– I’ve loved each of the stories I picked this season and each one has demonstrated something I seek to model in my own writing. I’ve saved this story for last because it is the closest match to a novel I am working on. I’ve been hunting for stories about women who awaken to themselves through an external Performance genre, but the awakening is the Global story. And I was thrilled when I came across this film.


Let’s walk through Friedman’s Framework briefly and then we’ll get into the meat of this story.

  • Protagonist = Agnes
  • Beginning
    • Character = weak willed, selfless motives
    • Worldview = naive, sheltered, unaware of how intelligent and gifted she is
    • Fortune = married, two grown sons who live at home, housewife, volunteer, never travels – everything about her life is in service of others
  • End
    • Character = strong willed, balanced motives
    • Worldview = aware of her gift, aware she’s been wasting it
    • Fortune = won the puzzle competition, separated from her husband, turned down Robert/Brussels to travel to Montreal on her own
  • Which aspect has changed the most? = all three have changed but her fortune / status appear to be the thing that changes the most, what the story is really about
  • How do we feel about this change? = proud, relieved
  • What genre best encompasses this change = Status-Sentimental
  • Cause & Effect Statement
    • General: When a sympathetic protagonist, with a steadfast will but naive worldview, encounters a challenge or opportunity and has a supportive mentor of high moral character, he can rise in social standing.
    • Specific: When a selfless but naive housewife discovers her hidden talent for completing puzzles, through the encouragement of her eldest son and new friend, she awakens her authentic self and sheds her sheltered life for  independence and fulfillment.

In a Status-Sentimental story, the protagonist often finds their strength of will for the first time, they learn they have a specific will / desire. It can appear as a mix of change in thought + change in character, where they become more sophisticated about their own motives and wants, and this enables them to pursue a specific desire / change in status. But because they are not used to acknowledging their own desires, they are going to need help to achieve it. Status stories center greatly around the role of the mentor. Positive / prescriptive arcs, like Sentimental and Admiration, have a present and adequate mentor, while negative / cautionary arcs, like Pathetic and Tragic, have a flawed or absent mentor.

For Agnes, her character (strength of will, motives, adherence to her moral code) begins at a kind of negation of the negation — her motives are to serve others, but it comes at the expense of herself. It doesn’t qualify as Selfishness like a Morality protagonist would because unlike a Morality protagonist Agnes isn’t sophisticated enough to recognize she is withholding her gift. Put this in contrast with Ove, on the other hand, who is sophisticated and consciously hoards his gifts of service to others in service of himself.

Agnes begins quite naive, having lived a sheltered life, raising her family and not traveling. As the story progresses she does grow in sophisticated, about herself and the world. It is different from typical Worldview protagonist in that Agnes does not deny her naivete, she admits the things she doesn’t understand, asks for help, and accepts the knowledge offered to her, integrating it piece by piece. This is an important aspect of a Sentimental protagonist–they must be willing to acknowledge and heed the guidance of their mentor(s). A Worldview protagonist on the other hand will fight hard against anything that contradicts their current mode of thought.

As her worldview expands, Agnes begins to form her own definition of success and, recognizing that she is not living it, begins to take action in pursuit of a positive change for her life.


Life Values

Status stories concern the life values of Failure / Success, with the generic spectrum being

  • Success
  • Compromise
  • Failure
  • Selling Out (Failure masked as Success)

But these values must be specifically defined for the story and the protagonist. This takes them from hollow words that aren’t meaningful to a range of images/moments that are alive and represent the true change that occurs for the character. For Agnes this seems to revolve around doing things she is good at and things she enjoys / is fulfilled by.

  • True Success = being herself and pursuing what her heart desires, doing things she is good at and enjoys / is fulfilled by and actively wants.
  • Success = doing things she is good at and enjoys / is fulfilled by and is good at honestly
  • Compromise = doing things she is good at and enjoys / is fulfilled by in secret
  • Failure = Doing things she is good at but that are unfilling, but acknowledging it
  • Selling out = Doing things she is good at but that are unfulfilling / waste of her talent, and not acknowledging it

Paired with the external genres of Love and Performance helps demonstrates these Status Life Values more clearly. Doing Puzzles becomes a way for Agnes to explore what she wants, enjoys, is good at. The men in her life all have their own definitions of success for her. Her husband Lou wants her to stay the same, her younger son Gabe wants her to join the 21st Century, her older son Ziggy wants her to do things for herself that make her happy, and her puzzle partner / love interest Robert wants her to travel to Belgium with him.

In the end she chooses her own definition of success and follows it by not choosing to go to Brussels and instead going to Montreal–a place she’s always wanted to visit–on her own.

But Agnes seems to begin at the Negation of the Negation, Selling Out, like Rocky does. And it’s interesting to me how similar this story is to Rocky, while at the same time being very different. This makes me very happy for so many reasons, one of which is the character in my own novel that I’m working on is based on a similar archetype to Adrian from Rocky. Which is what Agnes reminds me of as well. These women locked away inside themselves that the world around them needs to bloom.

The opening scene is amazing and such an excellent example of ways to establish the life values. It’s done through poignant action and I can imagine it transfering very well to the page in a novel.

It opens with Agnes vacuuming the living rooms. We see her setting up for a birthday party in her house, chairs, banner, balloons, makes finger food, bakes a cake, the whole deal. Then the house is full of guests and she is carrying around a tray to them, her husband and one of his buddies accidentally break a plate and Agnes cleans it up, while she is sweeping up the pieces she asks her husband if he’s having a good time, he says he’s having a great time, then he’s going to head outside with other guys to smoke. Agnes says she’ll call him when it’s time for cake. She attempts to glue the plate back together but is missing a piece. Her husband finds her on hands and knees in the living room searching for it. He asks what she’s doing, stops her, has her get up. “Not today, not during the party. You’re so cute.” He kisses her on the head. She goes to get the cake, puts on the candles and brings it out to a room full of people all singing. They sing, “Happy birthday, dear Agnes” and we realize it’s her birthday! It’s only after everyone is gone that she opens the presents: an iPhone that she is immediately uncomfortable with and a 1000 piece puzzle that is an old-fashioned looking map of the world. She does the dishes, pours herself a glass of wine while humming herself happy birthday, then sits at the kitchen table alone, drumming her fingers on her glass.

We see in this scene that she has sold out her life force, her talent, her will. She is compliant and subservient to all, even on a day meant to celebrate her. The turning point seems to be when she is looking for the piece and her husband Lou stops her, he doesn’t want her doing that during the party. He says in a way that makes it seem as though it’s for her sake, like just enjoy your party, but really it’s for him and what makes him comfortable. Her crisis is to do what he says / keep peace, or choose her own will / make waves. In this case, her character really only has one choice, to comply with Lou’s wishes and stop doing what she wants to do which is to find the missing piece and finish fixing the plate.

We see this tug of war between Agnes and Lou throughout, with Agnes taking one step forward and two steps back with voicing her true thoughts/feelings, telling the truth.

The Ending – When I first watched the film, I didn’t love the ending. It felt like it stopped short. I wanted more, I had questions, I wanted to see Agnes in Montreal. But having watched it several more times now, I notice new things, symbolism every time I watch it (moon, reflections, her hair, things she says) and her essential actions become clearer each time as well. Now I appreciate the ending, even though it’s not the series of resolution moments I enjoyed so much in Fundamentals of Caring and A Man Called Ove.

Other Genres

  • Performance
  • Love-Marriage – Agnes & Lou
  • Love-Obsession – Agnes & Robert
  • Ziggy — mirrors with Status-Sentimental
  • Gabe — Worldview-Maturation/Affective about his mother Agnes

Other Perspectives


The story is very simple and linear, with a single POV (Agnes’s), so there’s no particular complexity to examine.

Instead I want to discuss something that struck me right away and continued to strike me throughout the movie: what I’ll call “efficiency,” for want of a better term.

I’m going to try to avoid mentioning the purely cinematic efficiencies of this movie and focus on how it saves the viewer’s time and brainpower in ways that we can also use as novelists.

Kim mentioned that she felt the lack of satisfying resolutions moments. Similar to a lot of literary fiction, this movie implies resolutions but doesn’t actually provide them. Instead, it builds each character to the point where we can guess how they might wind up, but we still have questions afterwards.

Though I didn’t identify with any of the characters, I found them all interesting, because every bit of dialogue for every character in every scene served to make them three-dimensional and complex, and I could easily imagine outcomes for them all.

Not providing spelled-out resolutions is one way you might decide to pare down your story…if you’re writing Status, Worldview or Morality. The more primal story types like Action, Horror and Thriller probably aren’t well served by ambiguity.

Just bear in mind that if you cut resolution moments, you’ll be on the spot for building up three-dimensional, understandable, real-seeming characters (which, by the way, you should be doing in all cases anyway.)

If we–your readers–can’t guess at their outcome because they’re flat, or because we have no empathy for them and don’t CARE about their outcome, then leaving the resolutions up in the air won’t work.

Now let’s take a look at what else this movie leaves out.

It leaves out all transitions. From Agnes preparing her house for a birthday party, it cuts directly to the party. It cuts from the party to Agnes alone afterwards, looking at two gifts, the iPhone and the jigsaw puzzle that are going to play such important roles in the story. Note that we do not see the opening of gifts, any other gifts, or any birthday-party conversation. Just enough party to reveal Agnes as a meek, patient wife and mother.

Several times throughout the movie we cut from starting a jigsaw puzzle to finishing it. In a film script, this would read something like this:

Scene 20, Dining Room, Afternoon: Agnes dumps the puzzle pieces out onto the table and begins arranging them.

Scene 21, Dining Room, continued: Agnes puts the last two pieces into the finished puzzle.

In a novel, it wouldn’t read all that differently:

Agnes dumped the puzzle pieces out on the table and began turning them over.

Two hours later, she clicked the final piece into place and ran her hands over the finished puzzle.

A couple more examples of efficiency in moving from scene to scene:

We hear Agnes tell her aunt that she’s nervous about going into New York to the puzzle shop. Hard cut to her waiting for a train. She obviously overcame her trepidation in order to get more puzzles. We have no need to see her doing that.

When she spies Robert’s ad in the puzzle shop, we cut directly to her looking at his phone number slip on the train home. We do not see her leaving the shop, saying goodbye, going to the train station, boarding… All of that would be shoe leather and totally unnecessary to the story.

This film is so good at cutting out unnecessary transitions that it’s remarkably satisfying when it decides to leave one in. Case in point: Agnes writes a text on her brand new iPhone and addresses it to the number in the ad. We watch her type every letter. She hits send with trepidation, and we continue to watch her anxious expression for ten full unbroken seconds. Whoop, in comes the reply. It’s a small but pleasing surprise.

Agnes begins a response to Robert’s text, but we don’t see it. We cut away.

Why? Because narrative drive, that’s why. What did she say back? We want to know, and we have to wait for two scenes to find out. One intervening scene builds on the marriage story–she’s lying awake next to her snoring husband.  The other shows Agnes at church on Ash Wednesday–she’s not only active in her church, but is actually devout, and Ash Wednesday has a theme of repentance. Could it be that she’ll finally have something to repent?

This is not a minor point for writers. In real life, things happen when they happen. But YOU DECIDE whether your story is going to take place over Lent, or during Ramadan, or in the dead of winter, based on the needs of the story, the symbolism available in different times, weathers, and settings, and the obstacles and opportunities they offer. Choices like this in well-written stories are no accident.

These two intervening scenes took only 20 seconds of film time, however. Then we get our answer to the question of what Agnes texted back to Richard, because suddenly, she’s on the train to New York again.

We do not see her get off the train, hail a cab, or walk. We cut directly to her knocking on Robert’s door.

Later, in the scene where Robert says, “Can I kiss you right now?” Agnes knits her brow and barely shakes her head no, then it’s a hard cut to her on the train going home.

Real people in a similar situation would have had an awkward leave-taking, possibly trying for some sort of explanation, putting forth plans for the next meeting, whatever. But those things aren’t shown in the story. Why? Because the story doesn’t need them.

What it needs is to complicate Agnes’s path to freedom by getting her to the next scene. That’s what all stories need: to move to the next scene.

Perhaps the most notable elimination of material is at the start of the big puzzle contest. We see Robert and Agnes dump out the puzzle pieces and get started. We get just enough of the contest to see Agnes asserting her own way of doing things, and then bam! Straight to Agnes calling home to say that she’s won.

It was a good choice, because there’s virtually no drama in putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You simply couldn’t build a global Performance story out of a jigsaw puzzle competition, and the filmmakers were wise to background it.

This elimination of transitions continues through the whole movie. Nothing is said that doesn’t define characters and relationships. Nothing is shown that doesn’t have Agnes moving inexorably towards her own self-realization and away from her subservience to her husband and her sons. The stakes, while not life-and-death, grow more irreversible with each scene.

Though there’s virtually nothing in between them, the scenes themselves are as full and nuanced as they need to be. Each visit with Robert creates more intimacy between him and Agnes, and each return home finds Agnes covering, then fibbing, then outright lying to her family about where she’s been, until she just can’t lie any longer.

The scenes themselves are quiet and fairly slow, but the hard cuts from one scene to the next, without transitional material, keep the story moving along.

And this is a technique novelists can really make use of. We may need a few extra transition words to accomplish it–words like “the next morning” or “it wasn’t until she did XYZ that…” or “The train was crowded,” or “Father Kutash’s Easter homily was about light.”

I could do a whole analysis of setups and payoffs in this film as well, but in the interests of time I’ll just recommend watching for them. Every main element of the story occurs more than once, right down to the checker at the grocery store. Some are bigger and some are smaller, but nothing in the film is isolated or meaningless. It’s very well written, and more than many movies we watch for the podcast, it serves up some great specific lessons for novelists.

Jarie – Dialogue

I found this movie peculiar, distributing, and disjointed. I still liked it but for some reason, it did not sit well with me. I think the reason has something to do with the situation that Agnes has found herself in. My uneasiness started right away in the opening scene when she has to throw her own birthday party and even take out her own cake. I’m sure she even baked the cake.

I guess that’s what we’re supposed to feel for her since we spend the beginning hook getting to know Agnes’s life and how routine it is. The dialogue is used to great effect to paint the picture of how Agnes’s life is a series of mundane tasks that she can literally countdown to when they will start.

Agnes’s and Robert’s first meeting is a wonderful scene that sets Robert’s character voice right away. He’s a sensitive man that later on, we find out why he does puzzles. In this “lovers first meet scene”, you get a good sense as to how awkward this could be. I mean, Agnes as an ash cross on her forehead (it’s Ash Wednesday) and it’s distracting in an endearing way. She’s so innocent yet asks all the right questions in a sly way that’s not in her character voice, well at least in the character voice her family sees. In that way, we see how she acts in the Secret World with Robert.

As her comfort, confidence, and feelings start to change around Robert, her Secret World self starts to bleed into her ordinary world self. Even her son Ziggy, senses that and there are several great scenes where he confronts her about why she just does not leave Louie. The role reversals between mother and son insofar as giving advice about life, makes for some touching, awkward moments in their authentic character voices.

The tipping point, or point of no return, or when Agnes will forever be different is in this scene after a practice session with Robert.

Time: 1:03:42

ROBERT: I’ll miss you Mata

AGNES:  Why did you say that?

ROBERT: ‘Cause I meant it.

ANGES: How can you mean it?

ROBERT: I don’t know

ANGES: How can this be happening?

ROBERT: I don’t know

ANGES: Why are we wasting all this time doing puzzles?

ROBERT: What else is there to do?

ANGES: It’s a childish hobby for bored people.

ROBERT: You know that’s not true.

ANGES: Tell me you’re not a bored rich guy. Tell me I’m not a childish housewife.

ROBERT: No, that’s not what we are.

ANGES: You have much more important things to do. You’re a man of ideas. Why do you do these stupid puzzles?

ROBERT: It’s a way … to control the chaos.

ANGES: That’s ridiculous.

ROBERT: Come on, Mata, you … you’re missing the point.

ANGES: Okay. What is the point, Robert?

ROBERT: Life is messy. It doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you. Life’s just random. Everything’s random. My success, you here now. There’s nothing we can do to control anything. But when you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices. No matter how many wrong pieces you tried to fit into the wrong place, but at the very end, everything makes one perfect picture. What other pursuits can give you that kind of perfection? Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love? No. Not even love can do that Mata. Not completely. 


In this scene we get the first physical manifestation of the love that Agnes and Robert feel for each other. Robert’s speech about how life is messy is a wonderful bit of dialogue that I don’t think could have been done any other way. It’s remarkable in that it sums up why Robert is Robert so well.

Let’s look at the Five tasks of speech and see what we get:

  1. Desire: Robert wants to spend more time with Agnes
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: Agnes life at home
  3. Choice of Action: Opens up to her about why puzzling is not a waste of time
  4. Action/Reaction: Robert’s arguments and Agnes challenging him.
  5. Expression: Agnes kisses Robert and then leaves

It also shows Agnes and her new attitude about life. She’s finally doing something that makes her happy and that’s going to lead to a lot of other awkward scenes with her family. The next scene shows how much of a rebel she is becoming when the priest asks her if she wants to do confession and she says know.

This next scene is when Louie, Agnes’ husband comes home after he’s been drinking after a fight.

Time: 1:18:32


[door opens]

LOUIE: I told you not to wait up for me.

AGNES: You’re drunk. Go to bed.

LOUIE: Goddamn it, Agnes. You’ve forgotten how to listen. I never did you wrong. Ever. This fucking puzzle. [LOUIE PUSHES THE PUZZLE OFF THE TABLE]

ANGES: Louie! Oh!

LOUIE: Jesus. Look at you. What are you …? What’s going on? Who’s filling your head with all these new ideas? Selling the land and cooking school? This fucking competition?


LOUIE: You know what my father would have done to my mother in this situation? [gasps] I’m not my father! I’m not him.

If we look at the five tasks of speech for this, it’s pretty obvious

  1. Desire: Louie wants to go back to the way to go.
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: Agnes life with Robert
  3. Choice of Action: Louie chooses to confront her.
  4. Action/Reaction: Louie yells/threatens Agnes. Agnes ignores him.
  5. Expression: Louie smashes the puzzle and storms out.

At this point, Louie clearly thinks something is up and yet he’s struggling to not do what his father did, which makes the whole scene uncomfortable. Both of their actions are in their authentic character voice and I think it’s this point where Agnes is now changed forever. She will never go back to the way it was. Agnes has been transformed.

Leslie – Virgin’s Promise

The Virgin’s Promise is an archetype, a collection of  conventions and events that recur in stories across time and place. The Hero’s Journey is the archetype we’re most familiar with, but there are many other options available. Generally speaking, the Hero’s Journey involves a protagonist-hero who leaves their ordinary world and must reach their potential to conquer someone or something that represents a threat to the community. They make a sacrifice and return with a boon that enriches the community.

Kim Hudson gives us the term and the details of the journey for the character, and in a Virgin’s Promise or Heroine’s Journey story, again generally speaking, the community (which could be their family or group of friends) prevents the protagonist from reaching their full potential. The protagonist pursues their gifts in secret until they can no longer hide their authentic self. The community benefits from the full expression of their gifts.

Archetypes help readers identify with characters because they have problems that are similar to but different from our own. In short, we can relate. Not every journey a character takes conforms precisely to the Hero’s Journey. I have a client with a series that includes a strong female protagonist that some readers had trouble relating to. The Hero’s Journey just wasn’t a good fit for the character. Once the writer saw the character’s arc through the lens of the Virgin’s Promise, it made more sense.

Along those lines, choosing different archetypes allows us to innovate the expression of the genres in our stories. They provide a pattern of meaning that readers can recognize. Finding an archetype that’s a good fit for the circumstances in your story will give you examples conventions and events to draw from when you’re not sure what to do.

I’ll list several resources in the show notes, but realize that there are loads of archetypal stories to choose from. How do you find them? Pick up any book of mythology or folk or fairy tales. These are stories that arise and stick around because they explore how to meet human needs or answer a question about how to solve intractable problems. Think about classic stories and what’s happening beneath the surface. What anxiety was up for people during that time and how does the story solve the problem? What’s that anxiety like today? Valerie explores Dracula in just this way in her Story Grid Masterwork. And her psychological thriller work in progress is a contemporary retelling of this story.    

Resources for Virgin’s Promise and other archetypes: The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson, From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend by Valerie Estelle Frankel, The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock, and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Another resource with archetypes you might find useful is 45 Master Characters: Mythical Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.  

Here are the steps in the Virgin’s Promise and how I see them playing out in Puzzle. Think of these as events or obligatory scenes that take the character from their life value in the beginning (e.g., unfulfilled and stuck) to their condition or life value at the end (e.g., expressing their authentic self).

Dependent World

The protagonist is attached to their world in a way that doesn’t allow them to reach their full potential. They might be dependent on others, and others might be dependent on them. What gets in the way for the protagonist can be a tangible presence within their family, social group, or community (like in Real Women Have Curves), or memories or internalized values or beliefs they carry with them (as in Rocky).

Hudson identified four scenarios to establish the dependent world.

  • Material survival
  • Protection or safety
  • Conditional love and acceptance
  • Social conventions/acceptance

Notice how these scenarios relate to the human needs tanks Shawn has identified, related to Maslow’s Hierarchy. Because of an alternate need that must be fulfilled, the protagonist cannot realize their potential and express their authentic self.

Agnes depends on her husband for financial support and security, but her family is just as dependent on her to hold domestic life together.

The Cost of Conformity

The cost of conformity represents a loss of self or potential left unrealized. This cost can manifest in different ways.

  • Sleeping through life (unaware of dreams or skills)
  • Agreeing to live within restrictive boundaries (aware, but limiting or giving them up)
  • Living a life of servitude
  • Facing psychological danger

Agnes’s circumstances represent a combination: In part she is sleeping through life because she is unaware that she could contribute more in life than just the care and feeding of her family. But she also agrees to live within restricted boundaries (has dream to visit Montreal, but can’t envision how she might get there).

Both happen as a result of living a life of servitude to her family—which is not to say that being a primary care provider for children couldn’t be a part of self-actualization for a person or character. Agnes doesn’t seem to hate caring for her family. In fact, it’s an outlet. Menial tasks help her to quiet her mind that is “moving so fast, you don’t really know where it’s going.”

She could put that mental energy into activities that interest her, only she doesn’t know it, or how she might solve the problem. The care and attention she gives her family allows her to avoid facing those challenges. And her husband and sons have grown accustomed to this, though they are all grown people, capable of doing for themselves.

This is demonstrated when she has to do all the preparation for her own birthday party. A plate is broken, and she might get some satisfaction out of putting the broken pieces back together, but her husband urges her to get back to their guests. “You’re so cute.” Getting grown men out of bed in the morning, as if they are children.”Only children play with puzzles.”

Opportunity to Shine

This is the protagonist’s first opportunity to express their true potential. It can arise in multiple ways.

  • Directed by fate
  • Actively pursued
  • Wish fulfillment
  • A response to someone in need
  • Pushed by the crone

In Puzzle, while her family members are out for the day, Agnes completes the one-thousand-piece puzzle she received as a gift from Aunt Emily (a “crone”), quickly, more than once, without ignoring her other daily chores. Her son Ziggy comments on how unusual that is, that it’s really hard to do.

Dresses the Part

This event shows us that the protagonist really has a shot at reaching their potential. An aspect of their intangible dream manifests as a tool to assist them in growing into their true nature. This can be, but is not always, a literal dress.

  • Becomes beautiful (outside manifestation of inner beauty)
  • Receives a physical object
  • Participates in a fashion show
  • Undresses

Agnes buys puzzles in NYC (physical object) and answers an ad from the puzzle shop and meets Robert (participates in a fashion show, trying on an aspect of her authentic self). He is amazed at how quickly she puts a puzzle together with him during an “audition” and offers the position as his partner in an upcoming competition.

The Secret World

Once they have seen an external manifestation of their dream, the protagonist creates a secret place in which the dream can grow. As they continue to balance the dependent and secret worlds, they fear being discovered and take steps to avoid that.

Agnes visits Robert’s home twice a week to practice for the competition while her husband and sons are out. She doesn’t tell them about the competition or practice at first, and instead claims she’s helping her Aunt Emily who’s broken her foot. (Even so, her husband, Louie, objects because they need her around the house and to work on invoices at the garage–showing, again, the cost of conformity.)  

No longer fits the world

The protagonist keeps the balancing act of maintaining the secret and dependent worlds, and her belief in the possibilities of the secret grows. This means more discomfort in the dependent world, where they cannot be their authentic selves, and anxiety about discovery of the secret world. The situation begins to unravel and they

  • Become reckless
  • Become confused
  • Attract attention
  • Declares the task is too hard

We see different examples of this in Puzzle.

Agnes becomes reckless, arriving late for dinner and missing the ladies guild meeting.

Confusion arises from Agnes’s feelings for Robert, but also when she reads Gabe’s college essay about how she doesn’t know or do anything. Robert says it doesn’t ring true, but she believes it does (Gabe knows a side of her that Robert hasn’t really seen).

Aunt Emily asks her how she is, and Agnes says she feels different, but Louie is the same. She’s changing, and her dependent world isn’t supporting that change or changing with her.

Caught Shining

The protagonist can’t keep two worlds separate, and they collide.  

  • Grows too big
  • Circumstances change
  • Recognized by dependent world
  • Is betrayed

Soon, two days a week pursuing her own interests isn’t enough for Agnes. More of her time and attention go to puzzles. One night Louie and Ziggy return home to find that Agnes hasn’t made dinner because she was working on a puzzle.

Gives Up What Keeps Them Stuck

The protagonist must face and give up the belief and behavior that was the subject of the cost of conformity.

Agnes gives up the need to do all the caring around the house, allowing Ziggy to cook breakfast for her.

Kingdom in Chaos

As the protagonist changes, there is a ripple effect felt within the kingdom.

Louie and Agnes have arguments. He goes out drinking and goes to the garage after Easter services rather than joining the family.

Wanders in the Wilderness

This is the opportunity for the protagonist to prove that they can express their gift outside the relative safety of the secret world—and stand on their own two feet.

Agnes performs in the completion, and they win, despite the fact that she doesn’t follow the conventional advice about colors, but does it her usual way.

Chooses Their Light

This is when the protagonist appears in true form before the kingdom.

Agnes chooses not to go to Brussels to the international competition, but instead chooses to go to Montreal by herself. She has gotten what she needed from the process and doesn’t need puzzles.

*For her, this journey is not about puzzles. Preparing for and winning the competition is her transformative experience–similar to the one that Gabe says he doesn’t have in his college essay. As Robert explained, when you finish a puzzle, you have made all the right choices, and everything makes one perfect picture.


The kingdom returns to order when the protagonist’s true value is recognized and is reconnected with the community.

Agnes and the boys clean out the cabin on the lake as part of sale to provide seed money for the boys in pursuing their own dreams/wants.

The Kingdom Is Brighter  

This is the moment we acknowledge that evil has been uncovered and removed.

Agnes’s awakening and her speaking up for the expression of the authentic self inspires others to pursue their dreams. Robert begins working on inventions again, Ziggy plans to attend culinary school, and Gabe decides to travel instead of immediately attending college.

Click here for the spreadsheet where I’m collecting examples of the Virgin’s Promise. It’s a work in progress that I’ll keep adding to as time allows. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Kim – The Big Meta Why

We’ve talked about Status stories plenty of time in the past, and whenever we do the Big Meta Why is often a call to action to the mentors in the world, those whose sophistication can help improve the lives of individuals who on their own would not be able to reach success. The most significant recent example to me was when we discussed Love Actually with Sarah and her brother Michael and her love interest Karl.

But this specific Sentimental story seems to be more like a call to action to ourselves for ourselves. It’s such a powerful example of the Virgin’s Promise that we all need to go through. But even the Virgin needs helpers, in this case Ziggy and Robert who believe in her and encourage her, and even her Aunt Emily who gives her the puzzle to begin with. But the spark must begin with Agnes, just like it must begin with each of us.

Success is achieved when we acknowledge our gifts and specific genius and pursue it with the help and encouragement of those around us, in spite of other voices telling us we shouldn’t.

Another big meta takeaway from this story and stories like this is that this is change is just the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. Agnes sums up the call to action to all of us in her comments to her son Ziggy at the lake:

AGNES: It’s ironic. We had a place to go so we never went anywhere. And now that we don’t have a place to go, we’ll have to go somewhere, do something. Be something or someone.

The Virgin’s Promise archetype encourages all of us to pursue the full expression of our gifts—in the stories we tell and the lives we lead. By doing and being our highest selves we can positively influence the lives of those around us, our kingdoms, just like Agnes does for her sons, not by serving them daily but by being an example of self-respect and self-determination. And this is a lesson I hope we can all take away and apply to ourselves.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from a commenter on the Story Grid blog. This reader says, I write YA Fantasy. Why doesn’t Story Grid think this is a genre?

Anne – Story Grid uses a definition of genre that comes from fundamental story elements. These elements change very little over time, and are independent of target audience–whether that’s adults, young adults, middle-grade readers, or children–because the story elements of what we call the content genres can occur in books for any age or type of reader. Content genres aren’t directly tied to marketing categories or what you might call “bookstore genres.”

The Story Grid content genres can take place in all kinds of settings, whether realistic or fantastic, futuristic or historical or contemporary.

For example, you can have an Action story for young adults in a fantasy setting, or for adults in a future post apocalyptic setting. You can have a Horror story in a science-fiction setting (see Alien), or a War story set in the ancient world. Love stories can take place in almost any market category, for almost any audience, with the possible exception of young children.

You could have a Western story with vampire cowboys. Is it fantasy? Sure, but that doesn’t tell you what kind of arc to expect. “Fantasy” doesn’t define a story, only its degree of realism. It’s the Western part there that promises a town in trouble, a lone hero (possibly with fangs), and a showdown at high noon.

If you’re writing YA fantasy, what kind of story are you telling? What kind of change does your protagonist go through to get what they want and need? What’s at stake? How do you want me to feel when I’ve turned over the last page?

Answer those questions to zero in on the Story Grid content genre, and let your marketing genre be determined by your setting, the age of your protagonist, and possibly the language style and language level you use to tell the story.

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.

We’ll be back on June 6th with a whole new season of full-length story analysis and discussion episodes. In the meantime, stay tuned for some of our popular bite-size editions, starting next week with “Too Much Information,” Anne’s insightful look at the uses and pitfalls of the dreaded exposition.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.