By P.A. Cornell
Writers tend to think of writing as work. In my experience, the creative process is more akin to play. One of my favorite childhood toys for creative play were those classic Lego bricks. There was something calming about clicking the colorful bricks together, and a sense of satisfaction when the job was done.
Over the years, I went from playing with them constantly to not at all. It wasn’t until 2020 that this changed. I was searching for something to do during lockdown and had heard that when choosing hobbies, you should think back on activities that brought you joy in childhood. Of course, I thought of Lego.
Since then, I’ve become one of countless adult Lego builders. You can find pictures of my builds on Instagram. Often, I’ve joked that the one thing I’d give up writing for is a job as a professional Lego builder. That’s how much I love them. But for me, there are commonalities between the two (and not just because one of my favorite builds to date is a Lego typewriter.) Here are some lessons I’ve learned about storytelling through Lego, that any writer can benefit from.
1. Follow Directions
Lego sets come with instructions. In writing, your outline serves this purpose. This doesn’t mean you can’t deviate from the design. As with Lego, there’s always room for creativity. This is especially true for pantsers. You might not have every detail pre-planned, but it helps to know the general shape your story will take, or where you’re headed.
2. Work Your Way Up from A Solid Base
With Lego there’s usually a structure or plate to build on. In writing, that starts with your premise or idea and continues with your through-line. This is the base your story’s built upon, and one to keep in mind as you work.
3. Use the Right Pieces
Lego pieces fit together in specific ways to achieve the final build. Similarly, a story needs the right elements: setting, conflict, mood, voice, etc. You determine through planning, and later editing, which elements best serve the story. With Lego, there are always extra pieces in each set. These are meant for use in future builds where your imagination can roam free. We can do the same with writing. Elements you don’t use—those poor murdered darlings—can be saved for future stories.
4. Populate Your World with The Right Characters
Lego sets come with just the right number and types of minifigures to fit the theme. Likewise, your story should have the right characters to service the world you’re inviting the reader into. It’s easy to fall in love with your characters, but if there’s no place for them in your story, you’re better off saving them for a different one.
5. Pause to Appreciate Your Accomplishments at Each Stage
Lego builds are divided into stages. I generally photograph each stage for the benefit of other Lego fans (See #7). In writing, it’s also important to pause and appreciate what you’ve achieved, especially for longer projects, like novels. A work this size takes time and many drafts. It can be daunting if you don’t stop to pat yourself on the back now and then and feel a sense of accomplishment.
6. Mistakes Aren’t the End of the World
I like the larger Lego sets with thousands of pieces, in boxes marked 18+. With so many pieces (many of them tiny) it can get frustrating if you find you missed a step or misplaced a piece. But you can go back and fix it. This is similar to editing. Some people edit as they write. Others wait until the end. Either way, your first draft isn’t set in stone. You can always make improvements and when you’re finished, no one will know there were hiccups along the way.
7. Include Some Hidden Gems
Many Lego builds include little details that by the time the set’s complete, are hidden inside, known only to the builder. This is one of the reasons I photograph each stage. A story can also have hidden gems like clever lines of dialogue, inspired word choices, and even subtle easter eggs, that enhance the experience for the reader. This is especially true in mysteries in which clues are sprinkled throughout, but any story can benefit from weaving such elements into the plot. Elements that only become evident as the story takes shape, or at the end, leaving the reader with a satisfied smile as they discover them.
8. Take a Break
Some Lego builds can be huge endeavors that take hours—even days—to complete. This can be hard on your fingers and back, so it’s good to take a break now and then. Self-care is essential for writers too. Remind yourself to hydrate, rest your eyes, stretch, take time off, so you can return to your story refreshed and excited to work.
9. Indulge Your Inner Child
Many see Lego as a kid’s toy, but the company (and adult fans) would argue it’s for all ages. Fun isn’t something to outgrow, and with that in mind it’s important to keep writing fun. A story that’s a slog to write can be a sign something isn’t working. Trust that inner child. But at times a lack of fun just means you’ve hit a rough patch (I’m looking at you, muddy middles). Remembering what you love about writing can be key to getting you through those rough spots.
10. Enjoy the Finished Product
In Lego that’s easy. You can display it or play with it if you’re really in touch with that inner child. In writing you can enjoy it in other ways. Read your work just for fun, share it with others, celebrate a sale, publication, or book launch, but by all means enjoy the moment. You’ve built something great, starting with just a few scattered pieces. If that doesn’t call for celebration, I don’t know what does.
As a student at Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2002, P.A. Cornell immersed herself in learning the art of story-building, brick by brick. Now in its 28th year, Odyssey is an online writing workshop experience like no other. With custom-designed curriculum, one-on-one instruction, deep mentoring, and access to the renowned Odyssey Lectures, each student learns what they need to know to improve their writing, at a pace that works for them. The deadline to apply for Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop is March 23rd, 2023. Learn more here.
P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian speculative fiction writer who penned her first science-fiction story as a third-grade assignment (for those curious, it was about shape-shifting aliens). A member of SFWA and 2002 graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several professional markets. She is the 2022 recipient of the HPL Short Works Prize for her story, “Splits.” Her novella, Lost Cargo, was published in 2022 by Mocha Memoirs Press. A complete bibliography can be found at pacornell.com. Click here to view her Lego builds.
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Sophia Ascott says
As a dedicated Lego addict whose next Lego build will be the Titanic – which I have sitting here, waiting for me to finish my novel (it’s my reward/incentive, etc) – the article resonated with me on so many levels! I have the typewriter, a whole raft of Hogwarts builds including Hogwarts itself; the ISS, the NASA Apollo Saturn V build, viking and pirate ships, some trains, the Taj Mahal, the gorgeous Vespa (complete with bouquet of flowers in the basket, helmet and goggles!), Disney castles, the Discovery shuttle, various vehicles, a framed Van Goh (even the frame is Lego), etc etc.
All of these are small compared to the Titanic build, but each of them have been built as a ‘reward’ for some writing-related milestone: historical research completed; character dossiers completed (for all characters, not just the main ones); story outline completed; then deep plotting outline done; story mapped; character arcs mapped; emotional story map done; settings researched, visuals acquired; seasonal info nailed down, etc.
After each of these stages, the break to build my reward gives me space away from the writing project, and that way I am able to go back to it fresh, and with high levels of enthusiasm (a boon when the editing begins!). The real value of the waiting lego builds is their power to overcome my inclination for procrastination, though. And that’s important for me. Lego is not cheap, particularly the big builds like Titanic and the Eiffel Tower (which I also have stashed away for the next project). So their power to incentivize me is far more effective than rewarding myself with a night out or the like – those are things that are so much a part of my normal life that their ‘reward’ value is minimal.
So great post! And I am so glad to know there are other Lego addicts in the writing space!
P.A. Cornell says
That’s so great that you’ve found a way to combine the two as both reward and incentive. Those are all great sets. Enjoy!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
It is so easy to look at story-making as work, so it is such good advice to stay connected to the play element! And who can resist Lego? It’s the universal toy for all ages. 🙂
And that typewriter! Love it!
P.A. Cornell says
Yeah I had my eye on that typewriter when it was just the winning entry for a contest they held and not even an actual Lego set yet. I knew I had to get one as soon as it went on sale. It’s definitely one of my favorite builds.
I really hope this article will help remind writers to keep things fun when they “work.” There’s so much about this business that can be frustrating or stressful, it’s so important to remember why we love this.
Erin McKnight says
I love this analogy. Breaking the process down into specific steps not only makes the project easier, it gives you smaller benchmarks to reach along the way so you can see and celebrate your progress. Absolutely love it.
P.A. Cornell says
Yes, it’s so true. Breaking anything into manageable pieces can make it so much less daunting. And celebrating your progress is key. We don’t do that enough, I think.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Love this! #1 is so important. As creatives, we like to think we have absolute power—and we do have so much leeway. But there are certain conventions or expectations that need to be followed. It’s important to know what those are and educate ourselves on them.
P.A. Cornell says
Exactly. I always say, you have to know the rules before you can break them. Writers Helping Writers is an amazing resource for anyone learning the ropes, and I say that as a long-time reader.
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Wow, I never thought about the similarities of Lego blocks and writing before. I love your 10 lessons for both!
P.A. Cornell says
I’m so glad you enjoyed this comparison between two things I love. I hope you’ll find it helpful going forward.