Puzzle-World Plots

I’m a sucker for a good puzzle. Which is why I love reading books set in a “puzzle-world”–some kind of setting built as a test or obstacle course for the main character. My favorite aspects of this kind of story are the riddles that must be solved along the way and the satisfaction of finally understanding why the world was set up in the first place. Most important, a puzzle-world plot is enjoyable simply because the setting is so weird.

Let me give a few examples:

The Maze-Runner by James Dashner

Kid wakes up in a maze. Kid must find way out of maze. Watch out for mechanical monsters.

The main puzzles here are finding a way out of the maze and figuring out why the kid is in the maze to begin with. This story also includes a few smaller puzzles along the way, though unfortunately they aren’t the type the reader can try to solve on her own. And of course, the whole maze turns out to be a test–but I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the story.

Arena by Karen Hancock

Girl wakes up in an arena. Girl must get out of arena. Watch out for monsters.

Again, the goal of the main character in this book is to figure out how to get out of the huge, wilderness-infested arena she finds herself in, but also to figure out what has gone wrong with what was supposed to be an arena filled with wonders. We also get a few small puzzles to solve along the way: What’s with this field guide that seems to be completely wrong? How can these mechanical parts be connected to form something useful? The story ends up being something of an allegory, and the arena is ultimately a test of character.

One Day at Horrorland by R. L. Stine

Family stumbles upon weird theme park. Family must escape theme park. Watch out for monsters.

Don’t judge me for loving Goosebumps. As a kid, I enjoyed the doom and gloom theme park featured in this story; my favorite part was the supposedly never-ending slide. This setting was less of a puzzle to solve and more of a collection of odd, somewhat dangerous attractions that made you say huh? And the theme park wasn’t so much a test as it was an entertainment for the monsters who ran it and filmed the human families who got stuck inside it.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Boy visits chocolate factory. Boy must find way to leave factory intact. Watch out for traps.

There’s no question about why Wonka’s factory was built or what Charlie is doing inside of it–we’re told all of that straight off. But the factory is full of such strange inventions and so many “traps” that you start to wonder what’s up Wonka’s sleeve. In the end, we realize that the whole tour has been a test–and that Charlie has passed, a very satisfying solution to a subtle sort of riddle.

What other puzzle-world plots have you encountered?

Parker Peevyhouse

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5 responses to “Puzzle-World Plots

  1. Ack, was “One Day at Horrorland” the Goosebumps book with the “No pinching” signs throughout? If so, it was the only one I ever read, because it scared the living heck out of me!

  2. A lot of Andre Norton’s books contain a puzzle-book element. The first two that come to mind are Dread Companion and Iron Cage. Great YA SF.

    Dread Companion – nanny is trapped in alternate universe with her two charges, has to figure out how to escape.

    Iron Cage – two kids are captured as a zoo exhibit by aliens.

  3. Andre Norton is always a good read. You can find both books at used paperback stores, they are out of print.

    I’m also giving you and the other bloggers here the Sunshine Award. Thanks for giving me something to think about as I write!

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