Bullet Wisdom

I am an Active Duty Officer in the US Army. I am a Husband, father, writer, hunter, gamer, and SOLDIER. This blog is a forum for my many hobbies as well as my random musings.

Friday, November 19, 2010

No Plan Survives First Contact...

...or 'the Enemy gets his vote', or 'Murphy was a Soldier.' These are all variations of Murphy's pretty well known law, 'If Anything Can Go Wrong, It Will.' But I digress. Point is, during my 15 years in the military, I've learned some good lessons, and some of them even transfer over to the writing world. One of the most important of them is at the top of the post: No plan survives first contact.

In the military, we plan operations days, weeks, even months in advance. We slave over maps, statistics, and manuals, arguing and screaming back and forth over the table, eventually arriving at a hard earned consensus on how to move forward to engage the enemy.

Sounds a little like writing? Yeah, it kind of does.

We brief the plan, rehearsed it to death, prepared, and prepared. Then comes the execution, the part where we jump into our armored death machines and move forward to engage the enemy. Modern nights donned with Kevlar-armor, 21st century optics, and weapons that would make Napoleon himself run in terror. There is no second place in war. We are confident that:

We. Cannot. Lose.

Writing is the same. We plan. We plot. For hours, we march back and forth in front of whiteboard full of plot diagrams and flow charts. The rooms are filled with heat from the multiple computers burning their CPUs day and night collecting the research and background data that provide a solid foundation for our story. When it's all done, we outline, building the ladder that's going to take us from Act I up to the top of our Climax.

Then there's the other guy. That dude on the other side of the map with his own death machines and a hard-worked campaign plan. That's the Enemy. And guess what? He gets a vote too. When those armored warriors make contact and the steel starts flying, guess what happens to our plan. It goes right out the window.

Same thing in writing. In our writing cave, chapter summaries and character outlines get taped up next to the monitor and whiteboard. Then we move out, punishing keyboards to put words on the screen. (Frankly, I missed the days when I was whacking away on my IBM Selectric. It had a certain rhythm to it that was just awesome). As we roll out and start giving our characters bona fide opinions and that all-important snappy dialogue, something occurs to us: The story doesn't make any sense; it's going in a different direction. The plan was great; the outline, bulletproof. But it all changed. So what the heck happened?

At this point, you have a few choices. You can scratch your head, back away from the keyboard, pull down the outlines and rework your plot-equations until the math makes sense. After all, your intended story was g-e-n-i-u-s. It will work-- it has to work.

Okay, option two. Roll with it. Another military saying, 'An eighty percent plan executed violently is better than a perfect plan, poorly executed'. Be flexible, adapt. Let the narrative and dialogue lead you on their natural course until the muse decides it's time to hang it up. Every great military leader knows that momentum on the battlefield is critical to success. It's the same for writers. Keep that momentum; keep the words flowing left to right. Follow the plot rabbit down the hole until you've reached a natural stopping point.

The real Enemy here isn't the change in your outline; it's the break in momentum. In the end, the objective may not be the one you originally intended to conquer, but like on the battlefield, it may be the one that ultimately leads to that greater success. I will offer a few caveats:

No matter where the flow of the battle (story) takes you, don't lose sight of the desired endstate. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It may be an ugly baby, but it's yours. (Like real life, some babies are genuinely ugly. Really) Also, your new story may not be better than the original. You may have had a bad batch of No-Doze and your new storyline is nothing more than a bizarre caffeine-influenced sidebar. Know the difference. There's no real formula for success here other than:

Be flexible and know when to exploit success.