It’s been rainy and dreary here. Probably not much different for most of us experiencing the fall of the year. I remember learning to drive, and my dad made me drive in every possible “element” before I could drive on my own. Being your usual angsty teenager, I thought it was ridiculous. When I got in the car for a lesson, these things had to happen: lock the door, fasten the seatbelt, start the car. In that order. If I didn’t do it, the lesson ended there. My dad wanted me safe in all regards. Locked doors (before electronic locks of course), seat belts fastened were imperative. Being from the Midwest, I also had to drive on wet, snowy, and (because it’s Kansas) icy streets. We practiced every possible scenario and what the possible “outs” might be. You can imagine my appreciation for this – at that time.
Fast forward to today, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thanked him in my head for his obsession. From my first tire blow out to driving in my first ice storm to my first experience with hydroplaning. It was worse because my writer’s group was in the car, and we were on the way to a writer’s conference. The only thing worse than experiencing these things is dealing with them when the lives of people you care about are at stake.
Then today, I’m headed home from an appointment on the highway and that amalgamation of events and timing and my dad came together and saved my skin. A small white car in the left lane stopped dead in front of a large rig. No idea why as there was nothing in front of it. The rig couldn’t stop on the rain slick roads, and I was in the right lane, possibly in his blind spot. If he hit that little white car, whoever was in it was gone. He made the choice to come into my lane. I saw the brake lights on the white car; I saw the front end of the rig skew my direction. With dad’s voice in my head, I let off on the gas, took to the shoulder, and with the blessing of an exit ramp a mere fifty feet away, slipped safely off the highway. What did I hear Dad say? “Always have an out. Plan it. Look for it. Be prepared.”
It’s good advice for novelists. Even if you outline (which I don’t), our characters can take us places and do things that catch us by surprise. And eventually, we can find ourselves in blind alleys or up against brick walls, or forced to make difficult choices. The thing is no matter whether you outline or not, as you write, you should always be thinking about what your out is of any given situation. What is your character’s out in any given circumstance? Don’t let the character be boxed in so badly it requires the miracle of a man in a cape to save the day (unless you’re writing about Batman). You must have an out, look for it, be aware of the potential for it, plan for it.
How do you prepare for unexpected turns in your writing?