The Plan, The Outline And The Very Big Window

Generals spend a lot of time planning battles and engagements.  They even have something called The War College which I assume is where you go to get a degree in waging war.  But even these guys will tell you that the plan goes out the window when the first shot is fired in anger.

Why?  Chaos theory.  Or, not even theoretical chaos.  Actual chaos.  Too many variables to be taken into account in order to predict specific outcomes.  You can predict with some accuracy who will win the battle but not everything that will go right or wrong during it.

The same is true for the outline you so diligently studied over and worried about and tweaked and wadded up and threw away ten times just to start over again.  Somewhere in the first chapter, if your characters have any life of their own, the rigid ladder of events you wired together will start to unzip like replicating DNA.  And that’s a good thing because rigid ladders of actions and consequences are about as lifelike as Anime dance offs.

Life is chaotic and at times nonsensical.  That’s what makes most thrillers feel ridiculously artificial.  They stomp along like storm troopers in a steady rhythm of actions preceding events while the narrative ratchets up the consequences at the end of every act with the steady predictability of a metronome.


Life is chaotic and truth really is stranger than fiction.  You couldn’t put most of the coincidences and strange occurrences that actually happen in life into a movie script unless it was specifically designed for the Lifetime Channel.  For instance, did you know that President Lincoln had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration dressed as a woman?  Or that the Pinkerton agent who uncovered the assassination plot was a woman?  Go ahead.  Write that script and send it to an agent.

On second thought, someone did just buy Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  But look how that turned out.

Now I know that John Irving so thoroughly plots and outlines his books in advance that he claims to write them backward and he is one of my favorite authors, but I suspect that is actually a rare way to work.  For most of us, the outline is just the thing that gets us thinking about all aspects of the story and gives us a place to start and an idea of where we’re going to finish.  Everything that happens in between is a wonderfully unknown place that we are about to explore for the first time each time we cross its border.


One thought on “The Plan, The Outline And The Very Big Window

  1. My first two attempts at novels, one 1/2 finished, the other completed in rough format were by the seat of my pants, and yet, this next one will be from an outline. However, I am well aware that the life of the story will take over. I think it comes from my most basic theory about writing; we cannot, as writers, know the whole story. Not ever maybe, but definitely not before writing it once, twice and even a third time.

    That being said, I have to try. I have to know where on the spectrum of outline and pantsing I fit.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

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