Learning to Like Surprises

        When I write, , I start with structure. This is the skeleton of my story. It’s like the story outlines you learned in elementary school. I figure out who my characters are, in general, and I sketch out the major points of the conflict, along with the climax and sometimes— if I’m lucky, the resolution. In a lot of ways, I think this is how life works. We have a vague idea of what we want the future to look like— the big moments. We want to graduate from college, get married, have kids, etc. Society, social norms, and our own expectations impose, for better or worse, a structure on our lives. How we approach that structure— our temperament, upbringing, and ethnicity are just a few of the things that supply the tone of our own life story. Our voice, that’s our own unique stamp on things. It’s how two people can lead very similar yet remarkably different lives.

But how often have people lived their lives according to their blueprint, AKA the structure, yet lived a vastly different life than the one they intended? It’s those things that happen between the big moments that provide the real richness of life.

So it is with novel writing as well. I might be writing the scenes between the first turning point and the midpoint, and something unexpected happens that colors the rest of the story. Because of that one thing, that one thing that I didn’t plan for, I’m suddenly telling a different— usually richer— story.

This happens to me at least once with every story I write. It happens whether I’m strictly following an outline or winging it. And this thing that happens, it’s amazing. And a little scary. Just like it is when it happens in real life. I kind of hunch my shoulders and think, “Whoa, where did that come from?”

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally come to realize that these moments, which feel like a frightening lack of control at the time, are just … life. They are life happening the way life is meant to happen. I try, and now succeed more times than I fail, to see them for the unexpected gifts they are.

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