Why You Shouldn’t Worry about Thinking outside the Box

No one should worry about thinking outside the box.

Because THINKING is the box!

Worry about that, instead.

As fiction writers, we needn’t worry personally about the existential angst that “thinking is the box!” might stir up. But we should concern ourselves with how “thinking” relates to the journeys of our characters. And it goes like this:

If we really love our protagonist, we won’t ease up on him/her until they’ve utterly finished with thinking. From opening gambit to the story’s major crisis—thinking reigns supreme.

Thinking reigns supreme

The hero’s goal, her motivation, strategies and actions through the beginning and middle of a story, it’s all a function of thinking. It takes the hero a long way, but (in a good story) never all the way.

Thinking takes our POV character from Page One to the brink of the story heart, but thinking should never be allowed to move her through the heart to the story’s resolution.

This is a basic principle I work with, and it helps me break down the story into two parts.

A super-simple overview

Story One portrays the character operating within his thinking box. It’s a magnificent box of powerful biases and beliefs which, when spent—when emptied utterly—opens the protagonist to “seeing.”

Story One—thinking.

Story Two—seeing.

Is that simple, or what?

I have a habit of devolving into a rant at this point, because, although obvious to me, many story experts don’t grasp the significance of seeing vs. thinking. And yet the difference may explain nothing less than why we’re so addicted to fiction.

We yearn to see truth for ourselves

There comes a time in every struggle—if we’ve fought hard enough and failed—when we lose faith in ourselves. The hero grows tired of the sound of her own voice, and weary of the lies she’s forced to tell herself to sustain belief in her strategies. She rejects herself, her thoughts—the whole freaking box!

This is the moment of truth.

But truth is not served by a fictional character digging once again into her bag of tricks to come up with a last ditch solution. It’s just more box! It’s often called “thinking outside the box,” but as we know now, thinking IS the box!

Audiences get their money’s worth when the hero escapes the box for the freedom of no-thought (a few milliseconds will do) and the “seeing” that is the miraculous consequence. If you want to call that a religious experience, go ahead, please. Because it is powerful enough to give the reader a blast of authenticity. And that’s what’s addictive.


I’m designing a writing course for local writers here on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. I aim to present a few keys to writing a killer first draft. “Thinking is the box!” is one such key.

Not to overload the writer with rules, these basic principles and overviews will encourage the writer to write the most reckless-but-considered first draft possible.

And you — what are your guiding principles? When you set out, what are those big “story” thoughts without which you would never leave home?

Let me know in the “Comments” below.

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  1. says

    Even as I write my comment, I see a list of your blog titles to the right. Let me quote them: The Virus That Ate My Brain, How (un)smart Can a Writer Be? Art Done Right, etc. etc. All of these titles hint at headiness. In treatment, the counselor might say-get out of your head and into your gut. He/she might have said at the Pain Center where I worked, “You are a talking head, your awareness is cut off at the neck.” I have heard this all my life in different places. You must have too, for you studied so hard and you puzzled over the “Koans.” So, enough said about the strategy of thinking. But, tell us about seeing. Insight. What a word. I look forward to you telling us about that oh teacher. Bless us. Can you find the words!

  2. says

    PJ, I’m so glad to hear you will be teaching a writing course on the Sunshine Coast. I often hear from people who want to write more but feel they need a little boost to get them going. I think your course will be perfect!

  3. says

    Susan C… Fortunately, I stay away from therapists. I only do ashrams, marathons (not the running kind), meditations, body work, encounter groups, and upriver explorations in my mind, and such. All in aid of seeing. All in aid of traveling so far from home that thinking becomes pointless, even hazardous, even thoughts are seen disappearing, traitor-like, tails twixt legs, gone. Anyway, not much to say about seeing because it just happens, doesn’t it, when obscuring thoughts vanish. It’s a negative thing. We work toward negating that which we erroneously believe to be reality. Anyway, all comes clear in my new novel, “How to Die Laughing.” Soon in an airport newstand near you. I wish!

  4. says

    Sheila… My course will not only be perfect, it will be imperfect. Otherwise I wouldn’t be calling the course, “Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written.” We will boost each other with our experiences of how we get it done.

  5. Sarah says

    Good to see you back in the saddle PJ. Your course will be a winner because no one I know understands the key to good fiction like you do.

  6. says

    Sarah.. Thank you for that encouragement. As much as possible the class will be a group effort. We learn as much from others’ struggles and insights as from any lecture or lesson. Which is why our critique groups are so important. The reaction of each participant is gold. Saludos, amiga.

  7. Yvette Carol says

    Welcome back, PJ! I see you have been well occupied in your absence.
    Yes, no mind is the goal. I had never applied that to my view of writing fiction the way you do. It’s fascinating, and I want to follow your processes, then the way you put them, I suddenly see…
    …and I really really like the way you make these life experiences and understandings work hand-in-hand with story structure. It’s revelatory. Thank you! :-)

  8. says

    Yvette… I should write a book about how my life experiences informed my ‘story’ sense. I’m just not sure where it all began. My in utero memories are a little dim. And my mother’s no help. She’s coming up 102 and is only interested in the present, and only where the present presents mashed potatoes.

  9. says

    Great post! I see what you mean … I think. But seriously, you really do have a way to getting to the heart of the matter when it comes to story structure. I’m looking forward to taking part in your upcoming workshop series!

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