The favorite plan (or rather, lack thereof) of almost every action and Idiot Hero in existence. This trope exists when someone improvises plans while being in the middle of action or right before it.
Maybe The Team has lost The Smart Guy, or maybe The Leader has the attention span of a distracted goldfish on caffeine. Maybe The Plan our heroes were relying on was trashed and they're forced to wing it. No matter the reason, they are now executing an Indy Ploy.
Not all characters involved are necessarily aware of the leader's lack of forethought. When he finally utters those dreaded words, "I'm making it up as I go", hilarity is sure to ensue. If things don't go smoothly, expect exclamations of "What Were You Thinking?!"
An Indy Ploy is also a surefire way to invoke an Unspoken Plan Guarantee. Since Indy's course of action is unknown even to Indy himself, and therefore unknown to the audience, Indy is more likely to succeed than if he had spent time planning on-screen.
Named after Indiana Jones, who has had to make more hasty exits than most of us have had hot dinners.
Contrast Xanatos Gambit (a plan where all reasonable outcomes are benefical) and Batman Gambit (where the gambitter uses his knowledge of what all involved will do in order to use them as pieces on the board). Between them and this trope lies Xanatos Speed Chess, where the plan, generally more complicated than "survive and don't get caught", is continually adapted to circumstances. This can lead to a Spanner in the Works where they cannot be predicted because they don't know what they are going to do next.
See also "How Did You Know?" "I Didn't." and I Have No Idea What I'm Doing. May involve Holding the Floor. Unrelated, despite the name, to the Indy Escape, which does involve a plan: RUN. Those who weaponize this employ Confusion Fu. Writing by the Seat of Your Pants is when the author does this.
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Anime and Manga
In Mazinger Z, Kouji is able to think strategically and plot strategies beforehand. However, given his rash, hotheaded nature, he is VERY prone to impulsively rush/leap/dive headfirst into a dangerous situation and figure out along the way how he will walk out of it alive. These twopages of the "Mazinger Z: Relic of Terror" one-shot are a good example.
In Naruto, Deidara prides himself with these, as it correlates with his belief that true art is a momentary concept.
Naruto himself has twice been described to mooks who had never seen him before as "the one who will attack you without thinking first". While he can often make up plans (even very good ones), he initially is only capable of thinking them up immediately before he has to do them. Of course, this is somewhat implied to be why he's a capable fighter; he makes up for his lack of raw intelligence with body instinct.
It actually works in his favor. Considering that literally everyone he's fought has pulled new and unheard-of secret techniques out of their ass when he fights them, trying to plan ahead would be a pointless exercise. What little strategy he had (at least until recent chapters) has been "spam them with ShadowClones until they break out the big guns, and then figure it out from there." The kid plans for Indy Ploys.
Luffy of One Piece did this once or twice. At one point the main characters were making a minutely-detailed plan to invade a government-owned island. Luffy, being the Idiot Hero that he is, charged in at the soonest possible moment, leaving his allies to beat a hasty path in after him. Not that it really mattered. They used the same plan to get the rest of the Straw Hats in and it worked. Luffy just got in early and defeated the first CP9 member.
His fight with Eneru may also qualify. With his "Mantra" Eneru was able to predict and counter all of Luffy's moves, so he just started making up moves on the spot in an effort to get around it.
Two particularly interesting tactics of his; first, to allow himself to go into a daze and let instinct keep him from getting hit (didn't work because he couldn't attack without breaking the trance) and throwing his fists against the wall (they're made of rubber) to let them ricochet unpredictably.
When Luffy does have a plan, it usually amounts to "let's beat up the bad guy!" Anything else, he makes up as he goes (or has to be planned by a subordinate, usually Robin or Nami, or occasionally Usopp.)
In the manga Battle Royale, Shuuya has an admirable tendency to jump into a conflict to help the underdog. The problem is that he never thinks about what he'll do after he becomes part of it. He usually reveals his Indy Ploy after the conflict is already resolved and the other person asks what he was thinking.
And a lot of the time it turns out his plan was no more elaborate than 'jump in and hope for the best.'
Use of the Indy Ploy is the totality of the Saotome School of Martial Art in Ranma ½.
With one exception. When Ryouga learns the breaking point technique, Ranma employs the secret Saotome technique of... running away from the fight to think of a plan.
Quant from Tower of God found himself in a very sticky situation: Ho was holding Rachel hostage and tried to kill her before, Parakewl and Mauchi were trying to profit from this and pierce him with their lances and Baam was blackmailed into fighting him. What to do? Hit the little genius with a paralyzing technique and tell him to copy it and use it on Ho, so that he'd have the courage to jump in to save Rachel, while Quant takes care of the others, of course. He never expected it to work, but who cares?
Nearly every victory in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is like this. The one time the protagonists plan before a fight, they win, but Kamina dies in the ensuing victory.
And it's not like any plan they make will have more than 1% chance of success. As they can pull off even something with 0 chance of success, it doesn't really matter...
In Eyeshield 21 this will happen quite often with the Devil Bats, especially near the end of the series. It is particularly prevalent on the last kick returns and when the Japanese team uses the Dragonfly and Golden Dragonfly
Pokémon Special makes thorough use of the Indy Ploy - Gold in particular worships at its altar. His are so blatant that mental objections fill the panel when he acts like he planned it all along. It's hard to judge, given the nature of her intellect, whether some of Sapphire's more clever victories (Roxanne, Brawly, Ark @ Mt. Chimney) qualify as this or something between this and Xanatos Speed Chess.
This pretty much exemplifies Inuyasha's entire approach to fighting. He even learns Bakuryuuha totally without meaning to by reacting instinctively. His unconventional fighting style is commented on by other characters on more than one occasion.
As a leader, this is both Ichigo of Bleach's strength and weakness. On one hand, he can be so aggressive, and attempt such suicidal things with such limited preparation, that it astonishes and repeatedly catches more cautious foes off-guard. On the other hand, when the villains DO know what to expect from him, his impetuosity and lack of foresight makes him a real Unwitting Pawn.
Renji has shown shades of this on occasion with varying degrees of success.
In his fight with Shukuro Tsukishima Byakuya of all people was forced to do this as his opponent's ability allowed him to "insert" himself in someone's past, and he used it to learn any move Byakuya ever trained, so Byakuya had to improvise something unexpected. Later he admitted he enjoyed it.
In "The First Move Wins Computer Operation!" of the original 1971 Lupin III (Green Jacket) TV series, the Tokyo police department gets a supercomputer that is programmed to predict Lupin's every move. It does so extremely successfully, until Lupin realizes the way to beat it, is to throw out all his plans and act completely on whim.
This plot was revisited in the Lupin III (Red Jacket) series, where an armchair detective (criminologist) programmed a computer to do the same thing. This time, Lupin's Indy Ploy was to rely on Zenigata's whim.
In one episode, this was discussed when Tylor has a debate with Yamamoto about what happens if all plans against the enemy fails. Tylor's point was that sometimes all plans can fail and you must think fast at that point to win. Yamamoto dismisses Tylor as being an idiot, only to look in shock later in the episode, as Tylor's attempt to escape the Raalgon fleet pursing them - after all before plans failed - resulted in the whole Raalgon fleet getting wiped out by their own actions. Leaving the crew wondering, if Tylor was just lucky, or used an Indy Ploy against the Raalgon Fleet.
Yusuke Urameshi in YuYu Hakusho uses random tactics in an effort to win, most notably during his fight with Hiei which, afterwards, Botan notes he "risked their lives on a maybe" as well as Yusuke's first fight against Sensei where he attempts to counter Sensui's ability to predict moves by doing things that are entirely random (such as going for a swim mid-battle).
"Come on Genkai, this is me we're talking about, I'm just making it up as I go!"
"Alright Yusuke, you're out of options, time to do something stupid!"
Goku from Dragon Ball, especially during his assault on the main Red Ribbon Army base. His plan could be best described as "keep hitting anyone who attacks until you run out of targets". Meanwhile the rest of the cast were busily trying to put together a rescue team and trying to plan out how they'd save him.
Judau Ashta from Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ and Uso Ebbing from Mobile Suit Victory Gundam are masters of this. They make up new plans as they go along, using strategies more experienced or more crazy pilots never think of. Before them, Kou Uraki of Mobile Suit Gundam 0083 turns out to be incredible at this, with his crowning moment being the rather insane plan that he enacts to take out the Gundam GP-02A.
Cowboy Bebop: Spike "I try not to think" Spiegel is a contrast to Jet, especially Lampshaded over a game of Shogi in the movie. When he does make plans, they're simple and disposable; he expects them to fail, leaving him no choice but to improvise.
To quote the manga: "Plan A is 'Take it as it comes,' Plan B is 'First come, first served,' and Plan C is 'Wing it.'"
Having a strong preference for the Indy Ploy seems to be a requirement to be a member of Fairy Tail. Even many of the more sane characters tend to throw themselves into fights with little forethought (Erza fits this description well), notable exceptions may be Lucy, Levy, and Fried.
Judai from Yu-Gi-Oh! GX builds his reputation so much on this that Kaiser Ryou becomes disappointed when the former tries dueling more strategically against him in the latter's graduation duel. He brings himself back from the brink by going to his old (non-)strategy and ends the duel in the draw.
This is generally the M.O. of just about every comic book superhero, since supervillains have a tendency to attack without warning at any time. But while most of them do at least fight according to plans thought out in training or, on the rare occasion, when they're the ones tracking a bad guy instead of the other way around, The Avengers change their line-up so frequently that they can't even plan for their own team, let alone whatever they're up against. Winging it is what they do best.
In the old Snarfquest comic that ran in Dragon Magazine, Larry Elmore plotted out the next step and place for the characters to be, then threw it out and literally made up the craziest possible way to get there from the last stopping place. Best Example: "You Shot My Tower!!" Snarf DID.
Hawk, of the duo Hawk and Dove, reportedly has unpredictability as a super power. Despite some rather basic tactics (find the toughest guy in a group and attack him head-on), all mystical and mundane attempts to predict his actions automatically fail.
Crazy comic book Anti-HeroDeadpool has twice bested Taskmaster, a character capable of beating some of the very best superheroes (the low-to-mid-level ones, anyway — little chance of him taking down Thor or Ms. Marvel, for example, except by planning) by being able to perfectly mimic and therefore predict their fighting styles. The reason he was defeated by Deadpool, it is revealed, is that Deadpool, being almost as crazy as The Joker, literally makes up everything he does as he goes along, making him completely unpredictable.
The instance where he took Taskmaster off guard by suddenly stopping in the middle of their fight and going into a breakdancing routine is a sterling example of Deadpool's M.O.
This was also used in the DC Universe, when Batgirl's (Cassandra Cain) body language reading skills were foiled by the Joker's randomness. Cassandra triumphs after Oracle explains that the Joker's body language is "gibberish".
Which makes sense in that the only consistency in the last five or six iterations of the DC universe is that Joker literally makes up his personality as he goes along.
The miniseries Dream War, a Crisis Crossover between the Wildstorm Comics and DC Comics universes: In a conflict with DC villains, Midnighter of the Authority usually had an advantage, due to his ability to play out every variation of a fight in his head before the first blow lands. Until he ran into the Joker and could do nothing but stand completely still because he couldn't figure out what the Joker would do.
Like in the Shanghai Noon example below, in Astérix and the Cauldron, after Obelix doesn't understand a detailed plan, Asterix replaces it with "we fight, get the gold and go away" (to which Obelix replies "This one I understand!").
Spider-Man does this every now and again, often against enemies that outclass him in terms of power. One notable instance involved him defeating Nitro (yes, that Nitro) by luring him into a chemical warehouse full of tear gas and webbing a tank of it to Nitro's body. When Nitro exploded, he vaporized the tear gas, which then mixed with his gaseous form and left him too sick to stand up, much less explode again, when he reformed. It's even Lampshaded by Spider-Man when he realized he had all of five seconds to stop Nitro before the villain exploded again.
Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four can afford to use this as his modus operandi, since he's smart enough to pull a master plan that would take anyone else days to draw up out of his ass at random, or cobble together a interdimensional continuity de-snarler out of a handful of kitchen utensils.
Similarly, his sometime-colleague Doctor Strange frequently goes to cases without much preparation, expecting that he'll be quick-witted enough (or have the right amulet, or know the right spell) to deal with the situation as it develops.
Nikolai Dante is shown to pull this off all the time. Flintlock reckons that his tactics involve hurling himself in front of increasing numbers of enemy guns.
In the Jackie Chan Adventures fic Queen Of All Oni, when Jade has to capture Tohru for Ikazuki, he stays under the shop's wards during the attack, preventing her or her forces from getting close enough to grab him, she has one of her ninjas attack Uncle, KNOWING Tohru will charge to his sensei's rescue, and captures him. And keep in mind, she comes up with that plan ON THE SPOT!
The Firefly fanfic Forward continues the original series' fine tradition of Mal making it up as he goes. In the "Condor" story arc, it gets lampshaded by Zoe, who is relieved when Mal says their harrowing escape is being made up on the spot, and in the "Third Interlude" chapter, Jayne pulls an Indiana Jones-style vehicle boarding where he's improvising as he goes.
Plenty of these in With Strings Attached; indeed, the second half of the Fourth Movement is made of these.
Though not an Idiot Hero, Helen is able to do this very well. It helps that besides being the mother that needs to balance, control, and maintain her family, she can adjust herself in various ways to accommodate her own plans.
Bob is a straighter example of this. His own experiences as a hero aside, working with and being married to Helen probably contributed a lot to his ability to think fast and adapt to situations quickly.
Disney is quite fond of these, appearing again in Mulan.
Mushu: So what's the plan? Mulan: Um... Mushu: You don't have a plan?! Mulan: Hey, I'm making this up as I... go.
Ironically one of the only plans of Megamind's that works is basically one of these:
Mutt Williams: What's he gonna do now? Marion Ravenwood: I don't think he plans that far ahead.
Aaand then he pokes his head between them with a RPG-7!!!
Indy: Scooch over, will you, Son? Mutt: (eyes wide) Don't call me, "Son!" Indy: (completely ignoring Mutt) I'd cover my ears if I were you! (Cue Stuff Blowing Up. Giant saw blade comes flying at them.) Indy: Duck! Duck!
Hereditary. Witness Indy's dad in Last Crusade. "I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne."
In the same movie, Sallah asks "What are we going to do now?" to which Indy responds, "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."
In-universe, Indy seems to have picked up the "making this up as I go" line almost word for word from a group of older gentlemen while on a special mission during WWI (Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Phantom Train of Doom).
Old Soldier: Youngsters and their plans...
Young Indy: What's wrong with plans?
Captain Selous: Nothing. As long as you're willing to adapt when they don't work out.
He even does this as a teenager - in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when fellow scout Herman asks how he's going to get the Cross of Coronado away from Fedora and his men, he admits that he doesn't know, but he'll think of something...
In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mac, who knows Indy, immediately assumes playing chicken with him with vehicles is a really bad idea, because he's going to pull something unexpected — in this case, it turns out, pulling himself up and out of the car (this was taking place indoors) at the last moment and letting the crash happen.
Probably his ballsiest (if not outright insane) ploy was in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indy is in the middle of a rope bridge, surrounded on both sides by Thugees. Mola Ram forces Willie and Short Round to go out onto the bridge with him. Indy quickly wraps his leg around a rope railing and yells something in Chinese to Shorty, who quickly wraps his arm likewise and tells Willie:
Short Round: Hang on lady, we going for a ride!
(Willie sees Indy raising his sword and realizes what he's going to do)
Willie: OH MY GOD. Oh my god! Oh my god! Is he nuts?!
Short Round: He no nuts. He crazy!
Indy: Mola Ram! Prepare to meet Kali! IN HELL!
(Indy cuts the rope bridge with his sword and the bridge splits in half, sending the Thugees into the river below.)
Both the rescue/escape from the original Death Star and the attack on the second (the Battle of Endor) amount to extended improvisation, as our heroes' plans run into the unexpected again and again.
In the NPR Radio Drama of A New Hope, Luke is actually commended by a Rebel leader when he admits that rescuing Leia from the Death Star was improvised, because "the ability to think on one's feet isn't common."
Qui-Gon Jinn: "We don't have time for a plan."
In The Fugitive. A character even notes this: that he's too smart for even the FBI to catch him, even though he's never been a criminal on the run before.
There was a 90's movie, Presumed Innocent which had an "Indy plot" bordering on an Idiot Plot where the whole plot goes random and every character has to make shit up off the top of his/her head at the moment. All the best laid plans turn the plotters into Unwitting Pawns. The wife was the murderer, and she just wanted to get her husband's attention, who would cover it up. When he got on trial, she wanted to confess, but there was no evidence against him. He's struggling the whole movie to get the evidence, only for it to be right in front of his nose, in the desk of a cop friend of his. And the whammer? The judge was at the end of a Paranoia Fuel not-at-all-subtle attempt at blackmail by the defense attorney, judge who despite all odds stoically refused to succumb to it. The accused only escaped not because he was innocent, but because he seemed innocent because there was no evidence. Oh yeah, and there was no conspiracy to frame him, as stated above, on the contrary.
Parodied in the original Shanghai Noon, where Owen Wilson's character - at this point a train robber - comes up with an elaborate and well-timed plan to stop the train and get the money seamlessly. His men - who aren't the brightest of the bunch - stare blankly and Owen reluctantly agrees to "wing it."
In Ocean's Twelve, half the crew is jailed and the remaining half tries an Indy Ploy to achieve the mission, including having Julia Roberts try to pretend she's Julia Roberts. The plot fails, but anyway everything was a Gambit Roulette from the beginning.
In Ghostbusters, this ploy fails spectacularly the first time the not-yet-heroes attempt it.
Venkman: "Get her!" That was your whole plan, huh? "Get her." Very scientific.
Stantz: I just... got excited!
Down Periscope. Almost everything Lt. Cmdr. Dodge does amounts to winging it. Given the conditions of the exercise, an old diesel sub versus much of the US Navy's east coast fleet, it's also the only way to succeed.
Dodge: Men, we'll need to use a tactic that is somewhat bizarre and extremely risky.
Spots: Actually, sir, I think we prefer to go with bizarre and risky. It's worked for us so far.
Stepanek: I think we should continue to kick ass, sir.
Marty McFly and Doc Brown have to make up things on the spot frequently in the Back to the Future series, especially when unexpected things come up to nearly screw Doc's elaborate plans.
Before heading into the final shootout in The Way of the Gun, Parker and Longbaugh agree that "a plan is just a list of things that don't happen."
The Dark Knight: Joker claims to be doing this, but it's really really unlikely most of the time, considering the fact that he knew exactly how everyone in the city would react right up until the grand finale, with Batman himself being the only wild card, and a minor one at that. Considering how well everything worked out, it's more likely he's falling back on the character's long standing similarity to Batman, doing what he can to plan ahead and making up what he can't. It's also possible that he's playing it up to inspire fear. After all, the only thing more frightening than a psycho with a plan is a psycho without a plan who manages to succeed anyway.
Witness this exchange from the 2009 Star Trek movie:
Chekov: If Nero's ship detects us he will destroy us. But, if we drop out of warp near one of Saturn's moons... say... Titan. The magnetic distortion from Saturn's rings will shield us. (Note: at this point, Mr. Scott's weird beaming technology will enable them to beam from the Enterprise all the way to Nero's ship at Earth)
Mr. Scott: Aye... that might work.
Earlier than that, after Kirk becomes the captain of the Enterprise:
Uhura: I sure hope you know what you're doing, Captain.
Kirk: So do I...
Pretty much all of Inception involves this, with Cobb's team forced to improvise as they go. Cobb himself even says that once they enter Fisher's mind, they'll have no idea what to expect, so they have to improvise as they go deeper into his subconscious. In fact, the entire "Mister Charles" gambit is one of these that the team cooks up when they realize they're going to be mobbed by armies of Fisher's personal security guards.
¡Three Amigos!!. The title characters do this because they aren't very bright.
Dusty: We have a plan.
Carmen: What is it?
Dusty: First, we break into El Guapo's fortress.
Carmen: And that you've done. Now what?
Dusty: Well, we really didn't expect the first part of the plan to work, so we have no further plan. Sometimes you can overplan these things.
In Stripes John has gotten them into the Soviet camp in Czechoslovakia. When asked what now, he says "Working on it."
Kevin Flynn: Wait, what's your plan? Sam Flynn: I'm a User. I'll improvise.
Sam probably gets this from his father, Kevin, who did it all the time in TRON. Trapped in a lightcycle arena? Well, let's make a run for that glitch on the wall and hope it doesn't kill you. Lacking transport? Hot-wire a freaking Recognizer (and crash it in the middle of downtown). Running around in a huge city with only a vague idea on where your new best friend is heading? Mug a Mook and change yourTron Lines to blend in. Then there's re-routing a massive amount of power using his own body as a conduit and having no plan whatsoever at the endgame other than "kiss your pal's girlfriend and jump into the monster."
Tron: If you are a User, then everything you've done has been according to a plan? Kevin Flynn: You wish!
Inverted with Thor in that it isn't the hero, but the villain. Loki allowed a few Frost Giants in Asgard for "a bit of fun" while also "protecting Asgard" from Thor's rule; talks his brother into doing something stupid but the consequences were a lot bigger than he had hoped for; then he realizes he's adopted and decides that it's better for Thor to stay on Earth while he tries to earn their father's love by killing an entire race.
Millers Crossing: "Do you always know what you're going to do before you do it?"
In Most Wanted, Keenan Ivory Wayans says, "I'm a Marine. We don't plan—we improvise!" Which is a shout-out to Heartbreak Ridge, and also total BS, as Marine operations are planned in detail beforehand. Of course, one tenet of Murphy's Law reads, "No plan survives the first contact intact."
Played with and Lampshaded in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: After Voldemort learns they're hunting horcruxes Hermione says they need a new plan. Harry's response? "Hermione, since when have any of our plans ever worked?"
In the Mission: Impossible films, whenever something goes awry with plan, the improvisation is usually high in the HSQ.
This is Bartleby's specialty in Accepted. When his plan to set up a fake university ends up Gone Horribly Right, he gets up on stage and, rather than tell the truth, starts winging it, gives a Rousing Speech, and welcomes everyone to orientation. He walks into a frat party by first pretending to be a brother and taking a freshman's blazer so he can pretend to be a pledge. During the Big Damn Trial at the end, he looks expectantly at the "dean" he hired to begin the defense, only for the "dean" to look back at him and say "lead with your star witness". The only time it doesn't work is when everyone's parents show up for "Parents' Weekend" the morning after a huge party, at the same time as his archrival douchebag and the dean from the real college, and at the same time as the police.
Inverted or averted in Push where the only way to conceal a plan from an enemy with mind reading powers is for the hero of the group to make a plan, write it down in the form of about a dozen instruction envelopes, and have his mind wiped. They are effectively flying blind as if they were making it up as they go, but they end up following the plan and succeeding. Even as the characters read their instructional envelopes, the audience is kept in the dark.
In X-Men: The Last Stand, to take down Juggernaut, Shadowcat goads him into charging at her and Leech. Leech's power nullifies the Juggernaut's, and when he slams into the wall he gets knocked out.
The heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy end up doing this quite a bit; an early prison break is made with an outline of a plan, but circumstances force them to quickly improvise its implementation on short notice. Perhaps the ultimate example comes at the end, when Peter Quill successfully delays the Big Bad's imminent destruction of a planet by suddenly challenging him to a dance-off.
“So you do have a plan?” Octavian asked skeptically.
Percy looked at his teammates. “We go to Alaska as fast as possible...”
“And we improvise,” Hazel said.
“A lot,” Frank added.
The Wheel of Time. Mat due to way his luck-tweaking ability works, he does poorly at games of planning than of chance. For this reason, most of his better plans by default fall under this category.
The "wizzard" Rincewind from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels is not as concerned about where he's running to as what he's running from. He notes this on several occasions. "Run!" "Where to?!" "From! The key word is from!" Which invariably leads to more running. By The Last Hero, this is what he states as his religion (main tenet: whatever happens, you can run from it). However, when running away is not an option, Rincewind does come up with some clever plans, like in Interesting Times having the local Dibbler clone spread a rumor that the rebel forces are NOT bolstered by 3,200,009 vampire ghosts, nor by the vast and invincible Red Army. The vampire ghosts part is false. The Red Army turns out to be true, though mostly by an accident on Rincewind's part. Rincewind spreads such a bizarre rumor upon realizing that while telling someone that an enormous army is coming does frighten them, it's even more effective to tell them what they won't be facing and have the rumors spiral out of proportion.
A more heroic, for lack of a better term, Indy Ploy is the MO of Moist von Lipwig in the Discworld novel Going Postal. Near the end, he makes a bet with the Magnificent BastardBig Bad Reacher Gilt, and he has no idea how he'll win at first ... In his second appearance in Making Money, he outlines a grand if somewhat vague vision of the future of currency, and wonders if he should write it down so he can work out what he's talking about later. In both books the confidence with which he enters such things lead everyone else to conclude he had it all planned out.
Lord Vetinari of Ankh-Morpork combines Indy Ploys and The Plan to devastating effect. It was once stated that, since you can't plan for every eventuality, Vetinari doesn't. When in doubt he will order Vimes NOT to get involved with it. Say what you will about Vetinari, he knows how Vimes will follow this trope for him. Vimes is too vimesy to use The Plan, so one could call him him Vetinari's laser-guided Indy Ploy.
Commissar Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM! in Warhammer 40,000, often finds himself running headlong into situations he certainly shouldn't be running into in a universe as casually lethal as Warhammer 40K. He usually fights and flees his way out of these situations by simply making things up as he goes along, improvising weapons and tactics from his surroundings and from simple ingenuity. In one case, he halts a mob of bloodthirsty, rioting Imperial Guardsmen by jumping on a table, pointing at someone, and ordering them to get a mop, as the mess they had left was simply deplorable. "Whatever they'd been expecting me to say or do, this certainly wasn't it."
And, by extension, Cain's literary predecessor, Harry Paget Flashman, who lies, flatters, and flees his way through adventure after adventure, escaping by dint of sheer luck and the skin of his teeth.
Jurgen, his assistant, is no different sometime. He usually just carries every item of possible use he can and always just so happens that they need some of those items. While that requires some planning, his action of ramming a gun-emplacement with a truck certainty was not planned. Cain tries to find a reason to criticize him and fails.
In Ghostmaker, trooper Caffran, being miffed at being recalled from an assault at an enemy stronghold, manages to get an entire squad of Tanith following him into that aforementioned stronghold, almost single-handedly destroying an entire city's worth of insane Chaos-worshipping berserker fanatics by setting off a large enough explosion inside the stronghold that the cultists believe the Imperial Guard have completely entered the city, and proceed to engage in a mass suicide in the name of Khorne, the Blood God. End result, the entire Chaos army ends up dead while the Guard troopers still haven't even gotten inside the city.
Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan lives off these; he started his military career when he attempted to smuggle guns to a besieged planet in an unarmed freighter and, after a series of increasingly insane improvisations, wound up in command of the enemy forces.
And that's only halfway through his first book. Miles has thus far managed to improvise his way to one of the most powerful positions in the Barrayaran empire and into marriage and fatherhood while acquiring a six-years-younger twin brother and an entire fleet of mercenaries.
Subverted in A Civil Campaign where his attempt to ad lib a marriage proposal in the middle of a dinner party confirms to his love interest that he'd been shamelessly manipulating her all along and so totally backfires.
But maybe he gets it from his mother. After all, Cordelia starts out captured by the enemy in Cordelia's Honor and ends up married into the highest levels of aristocracy and Vicerene of two planets before it's all said and done. Of course this is after she effects a daring escape from Aral Vorkosigan who is kind of a Admiral Bad Ass and certainly an Officer and a Gentleman (IN SPACE!!).
In The Vor Game, Miles and Emperor Gregor pull off the rarely-attempted Synchronized Tandem Indy Ploy, and somehow manage to completely out-maneuver a Magnificent Bastard of a Chessmaster while unable to coordinate with each other on opposite sides of a star system.
Most of Harry Potter's plans fit into this trope, mostly due to a lack of time and/or information to plan ahead.
This is also brought up in Deathly Hallows:
George: So what's the plan, Harry? Harry: There isn't one. Fred: Just going to make it up as we go along, are we? My favourite kind.
When they do make a meticulous plan for how they're going to break into the Ministry of Magic, it goes wrong from the start, and they have to wing the whole thing. Ditto the Gringotts break-in. They were not anticipating flying away on a dragon.
In book seven, there's a lengthy time where Ron and Hermione assume Harry's got a plan, and are pissed (Ron) and worried (Hermione) when they discover he hasn't got one.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 Harry himself lampshade it by saying there's no need for a plan: "We make a plan, we go in, all hell breaks loose!"
Honor herself fits this description exactly. Up to The Chessmaster and The Determinator parts, though she usually has more resources to pad for contingencies better.
Roland Deschain of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is a great advocate of Indy planning. He prefers them to totally thought out rigid plans because rough spontaneous ones leave room for improvisation, something he does very, very well indeed.
In The Thrawn Trilogy, Luke Skywalker has an impressively long run of "This isn't working, I'll try something else" when he's pulled out of hyperspace by an Imperial Interdictor. Condensed, here's about half of it: "Whoa, it's practically on top of me! I'm in tractor range, I can't go to lightspeed in this gravity well, and they're hailing me. There's a freighter with it, there are no living things on board. Where's the nearest edge of the gravity well - gun for it. The freighter is between me and them, I'll send a timed proton torp to blow up the freighter, debris should shield us, okay done - damn, they're moving to keep me in the gravity well, I'll go laterally - tractored! They'll pull us in, if I can change speed I can get it to let go, I'll swing to get as close to the edge of the gravity well, then reverse-trigger the inertial compensator at full power - there, dead stop, the tractor's not on me for just a moment, I'll fire proton torpedoes to be caught by the tractor and pulled in. Done, fly! They're finally firing on me, we're far enough away, jump to lightspeed! ...We're out of range, but we've fallen out of lightspeed and now we're stranded in lightyears of empty space. Hyperdrive is dead, subspace radio is broken, we can't leave, aren't likely to be found, and can't call for help. Okay R2, let's try..."
The X-Wing Series has Wraith Squadron. A dozen people, give or take, constantly find themselves in situations that plans could not have predicted and rapidly put together schemes, often rather complex ones, to get the desired results. For about a thousand pages worth of novels. No wonder the Big Bad was afraid of them. And their allies, too, for that matter.
In their first live battle, Wraiths Five and Six, plus two A-Wings, manage to trick an Imp Star Deuce into following them, by pretending to be the Millenium Falcon. How they do so involved precision flying, wavery shields, and a bad imitation of Leia saying that Han was up to his elbows in the remains of the hyperdrive and couldn't talk right now. Just to top it off, they later ended up in the command of the inimitable then-General Han Solo himself. The loonies are running the asylum, and damn if it ain't fine.
Consider what happened within the first seven pages of Allegiance. Han and Luke in the Falcon lift off a planet, are attacked by pirates, do some tricky shooting and maneuvering, and a Star Destroyer glides into the system to take care of the rebel cell being smuggled out by the Falcon. Han powers down the Falcon's weapons and sends out a general emergency call, nominally to the planetary defenses below. The Star Destroyer tells him to state his intention and emergency, Han says that they're a medical mercy team sent out in response to a groundquake on the planet and were attacked by pirates. The Star Destroyer quickly and systematically destroys all of the pirates and tells Han that the planet is now under Imperial interdiction. Go home until the block has lifted. Han makes a show of reluctantly agreeing, and as they fly away he remarks to Luke that it's nice to obey Imperial orders now and again.
Timothy Zahn in general likes having his protagonists get pinned down and forced to improvise repeatedly to escape. The Cobra trilogy especially is packed with this.
Done many, many times in Animorphs. A notable example is #37 The Weakness, where Rachel, the group's Ax-Crazy member, takes over the Leader's role. Her 'plan' to get into the enemy's stronghold involves stealing a private jet and crashing it into a building.
For most of the run, Animorphs might as well just be called Indy Ploy: The Series. To be fair they do frequently try to plan everything out, but when things inevitably go downhill they just start making crap up as they go, with a result of all of them becoming really proficient. Another notable example is in #29, when everyone except Cassie gets knocked out with alien flu, forcing her to Indy ploy her way into the Yeerk pool to rescue a yeerk who knows too much before escaping to perform on the fly brain surgery.
Rachel: "Jenks, plan B!" Later, outside. Jenks: "So what's plan B?" Rachel: "Grab the fish and get the hell out of there."
Gentleman Bastard series: Locke Lamora tends to have his plans explode due to unforeseen complications, but he's very good at improvising. At one point he has lost access to his wardrobe and all of his disguises and needs to pass himself off as a wealthy merchant to his mark. Through a quick, complicated scam, he ends up walking into a bank and coming out half an hour later wearing the clothing of the man who runs it. And he only tried the ridiculous scheme after the first two, simpler ones failed miserably due to the security procedures of the bank manager... which he then turns around and uses on his successful attempt.
In fact, he had to have his inclination to conjure audacious, ridiculous schemes from nowhere trained out of him by his master; before that his default plan was "Uhhhh...", which, as his master points out, is not consistently workable in the long run.
Flying unshielded ships at a planet after losing every engagement?
This is in contrast to Ender's brother Peter, who is very fond of the Xanatos Gambit and Batman Gambit, and has the ability to pull them off.
The commanders of Battle School note that this is most probably what their near-AI level "Fantasy Game" computer is doing when Ender wins an unwinnable minigame. The game is creating brand-new areas and scenarios based off of what it has learned of Ender's mind. While it was programmed to tailor scenarios to individual players, it doing something of this scale was wholly unprecedented, leading to cries of "How in the hell did the computer do that!?"
An Anvil character triumphs by shooting the rapids, by caroming from one obstacle to another, adapting and overcoming as he goes. In many ways, his characters are science-fiction descendants of Odysseus, the scheming fast thinker who dazzles his opponents with his footwork. Of course, sometimes it's a little difficult to tell whether they're dazzling an opponent with their footwork, or skittering across a floor covered in ball bearings.
The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden will often start out with a general plan, but seeing as how the entire universe appears to hate him violently, this usually goes to hell fast. Thus we get a lot of plans that amount to "arrange for some backup, confront the villains, and wing it from there," and in one case even "get everyone in the same place and see what happens." It gets to where it's a real surprise when, in Changes, his elaborate scheme to break into a building and steal information goes off without a hitch. Some examples of his make-it-up-as-I-go-plans:
Oh, crap, giant scorpion-golem is attacking me and I can't use fire on it! Okay, drop a freaking elevator on it using a tunnel of wind!
A supremely-powerful ghost is trying to kill me in my dreams, and I can't beat it by myself. How do I stop it? Let it kill me in my sleep, then team up with my own ghost to beat the crap out of it, then get revived via CPR.
Trapped in a vampire's mansion, stripped of my gear, girlfriend is being held hostage, facing dozens of vampires, the leader of whom can wield magic, and I'm wearing undies with yellow duckies on them. Shit, what do I do? Pour magic into the shades of the vampires' hundreds of victims, giving them enough strength to mob the vampires and rip them to pieces, that's what.
Surrounded by faerie assassins in a Walmart with mind-numbing fog cutting off all help save Karrin Murphy, and the badguys are immune to my magic. Gasoline, a Super-Soaker, and chainsaws are the solution.
Facing off against a terrorist empowered by a Fallen Angel on top of a train, by myself. Nothing I throw at this guy works, thanks to the magical noose around his neck that instantly heals all damage. Well, let's give that noose a grab....
Three powerful necromancers who outpower me and are backed up by armies of unstoppable undead minions. I'm hurt, tired, and in no shape to face them head on, but the ritual they're planning will kill thousands if I don't stop them. Well, good thing I'm in the Field Museum. Let's raise that T-Rex skeleton and get to whupping some undead ass.
Technically, he plans things out. The fact that his plans are generally as elaborate as "show up, make things explode, profit" actually works to his detriment quite a bit. To the point that, in Ghost Story, when he sees what actually thinking things through can do, and how his typical approach of "shoot first, shoot some more, explode things and hope it all works out" is both effective in the short term and devastating in the long term, he actually has to stop and realize that he's dangerously close to being a psychopath himself.
In fact, Harry's tendency to wing it instead of creating a cunning plan saves him at least twice, by making potential adversaries who are accusing him of being an Evil Mastermind think about his standard M.O. Rashid the Gatekeeper's response is to practically double over with laughter; Fix the Summer Knight's response is more "Oh, Crap"...
Or when he's the target of a summer fae that doesn't "really" want to get in his way but has to because of direct orders. And he uses his previously given boon to ask said fae to get him "A REAL donut" just to get him out of his way long enough. Not really a "plan", but he sure as hell didn't think that one through.
The Memory Wars sees its hero, Nathan Shepherd, spend a lot of his time doing this.
Horatio Hornblower is guilty of both this and Xanatos Speed Chess. Although, being a Napoleonic Wars-era Naval officer, and the timing of military operations being dependent upon friction—wind, rain, sea conditions, road conditions, partisan attacks, the idiot who got drunk last night, et cetera—he has no way of predicting for certain the movements of his enemies, even if he knew what they intended to do. And he's generally brilliant at it, so really no reason to complain.
Fisk's rescue of Michael in the first book of the Knight and Rogue Series goes like this: Pull off a scam to get brought in, convince the evil baroness to let him stay the night, search for Michael once everyone has gone to bed, then find some way to get the hell out of there with both of them alive and whole.
In The Hobbit, the Dwarves seem to mostly operate this way, dealing with every obstacle as they happen. This becomes a problem late in the book, when they turn out to have no plan for getting rid of Smaug, which Bilbo doesn't find out until after they've already pissed him off by stealing from him.
They debated long on what was to be done, but they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug- which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out.
There is a story by Robert Sheckley about the human fleet is at an extreme disadvantage against the alien fleet, with both sides having perfect tactical computers. The humans shut their computers off and attack without a pattern, by putting someone who's gone completely loopy to push all the pretty buttons. The aliens are mostly just sitting there while being shot at because their computers are not giving any tactical analysis since they can't see a pattern.
"Plans? Faugh. The playthings of lesser intellects. I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, need no plan. Insult me no futher with such talk, Señor Simpson."
The Exile's Violin: Jacquie knows she should have a plan before taking action but she's no good at planning so she wings it instead. This gets her in trouble during a infiltration and on another occasion she regrets her habit of having goals instead of plans.
In The Prince of Thorns this is how basically all of Jorg's plans go. In the second book this is enforced; mind readers are spying on him, so whenever he has a good idea or sets something up he puts the knowledge of it into a magical box that removes it from his memory. The echo of the idea remains so that when it's time to put it into effect he knows to retrieve it from the box.
Live Action TV
The Old and the Restless
Henry: My son, the super sleuth, can't even get himself access into an old folks' home.
Shawn: No, no, no, Dad. You have no idea what we're up against, okay? I tried everything. I tried the whole "I'm a travelling doula" bit, the "dingo ate my baby" routine, "hiding Gus in a sack" trick, which never fails...
Henry: Alright, look. What the hell are you guys doing here?
Gus: This is the part where you get blindsided with Plan B. It's kind of fun when it's not happening to me.
When he originally came up with the idea for Mission: Impossible, creator Bruce Geller imagined EVERY episode's plan to go wrong at some point, leaving the IMF team to work from scratch. In the actual series, only a few Indy Ploy moments come up, mostly in the "Personal story" episodes.
In "The Legend", season 1, the team is set to assassinate Martin Bohrmann, who's been living in South America. Briggs infiltrates Bohrmann's bedroom -and discovers it isn't that simple. They have to change the plan on a dime.
In the 1988 relaunch of the series, the pilot episode featured John DeLancie as an assassin who intentionally used Indy Ploys: he never chose how he'd kill his target until the very last moment, improvising his plans as he went along, specifically to not be predictable.
At the very end of the final episode of the TV run of Angel, the title character, faced with an approaching horde of monsters and asked by a teammate what he has "in terms of a plan?" sums up the team's strategy for the past five seasons:
Angel: We fight.
Spike: Bit more specific?
Angel: Well, personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon. Let's go to work.
Earlier there was this reaction to learning that Gunn's plan to expose (zombie) cops who were attacking people was to go video tape them attacking him.
Wesley: That cannot possibly be his plan.
Cordelia: Hey, Gunn graduated with a major in Dumb Planning from Angel University. He sat at the feet of the master, and learned well how to plan dumbly.
Specifically, Angel at one point had a plan to sneak into Wolfram & Hart with Gunn's help.
Gunn: We know. It's cool. He's got a plan.
Wesley: A plan?
Angel: Yeah. I get to the offices before they can stop me.
Gunn: See? beat What? That's the plan? Walking real quick was the "plan"?
Then there's Spike:
Spike: I had a plan! A good plan! ...but then I got bored!
Subverted in that when Spike first shows up on Angel, he really does have a plan, and only pretends to get bored halfway through.
Hannibal "I love it when a plan comes together" Smith on The A-Team.
Chuck Bartowski doesn't have training as a spy so he really does just make it up literally from minute to minute. And sometimes..it works.
In "Chuck vs the Ring Part II'', this is played straight and verbalized when Morgan and Awesome arrive to rescue Chuck, Sarah, and Casey from Shaw.
Morgan: "No plan? Never stopped me before."
The Doctor in Doctor Who has a tendency to play things by ear — lampshaded several times in the series, in moments where he's been just as surprised as everyone else that a plan of his has actually worked, or worked for the wrong reason. Being able to intuitively perceive all the possibilities of time and space probably gives him a particular advantage at this game.
Mickey Smith: You're just making this up as you go! The Doctor: Yuuuuupp! But I do it brilliantly!
And not to mention this famous exchange...
The Doctor: This is what I'm gonna do: I'm gonna rescue her. I'm gonna save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet, and then I'm gonna save the Earth. And then, just to finish you off, I'm gonna wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!
Daleks: But you have no weapons! No defenses! No plan!
The Doctor: Yeah, and doesn't that just scare you to death?
The exception here being the Seventh Doctor, who was always executing a plan of some kind, in true Chessmaster fashion. Of course, his life being what it was, those plans usually required some "on site adjustments".
The Third Doctor certainly says something along those lines in "The Five Doctors":
Sarah Jane: Look, do you think this is wise, Doctor? I mean, well, whatever's in that Tower, it's got enormous powers and... well, what can we do against it?
The Doctor: What I've always done, Sarah Jane: improvise.
‘I’m not sure where we’re even going,’ Harris panted. ‘The Deadstone memorial,’ Fitz answered confidently. ‘The Doctor’s going to sort all this out for good.’ ‘How’s he going to do that, then?’ ‘He doesn’t know yet,’ Fitz replied grimly.
The Eleventh Doctor isn't any better:
The Doctor: River, you 'n me, we're gonna find the primary flight deck,[...] stabilise the wreckage, stop the angels and cure Amy.
The Doctor: I'll do a thing.
River: What thing?
The Doctor: I dunno; it's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.
From the exact same episode:
The Doctor: Anyway, that's not the plan.
River: There's a plan?
The Doctor: I don't know yet; I haven't finished talking.
From yet another Eleven episode:
Amy: Please tell me you have a plan.
The Doctor: No, I have a thing. It's like a plan, but with more greatness.
And from yet another Eleven episode:
The Doctor: Need a proper look. Got to draw its fire. Give it a target.
The Doctor: You know how sometimes I get these brilliant plans?
The Doctor: Sorry... (Jumps from out of hiding) LOOK AT ME I'M A TARGET!
In another instance from that episode, "The Pandorica Opens", the Eleventh Doctor threatens all of his enemies by saying that he has no weapons, nothing to lose and no plan whatsoever....so they should really do the smart thing and let someone else come up against him first.
The Eleventh Doctor lampshades this trope again in the 2011 Christmas Special.
Lily: What do we do?
The Doctor: No idea. Just do what I do: hold tight and pretend it's a plan.
Also inverted with the Daleks and the Movellans. They were both so good at The Plan that when they came up against each other they found themselves locked in a stalemate of Xanatos Speed Chess, neither able to ever gain an advantage over the other. The Daleks realize that they need Davros to find them a way past this block, and the Movellans realize that the Dalek task force sent to the desolate Skaro must be there for some ancient, hidden thing of great importance to the current situation and set out to stop them. Upon learning what the Daleks' plan is, the Movellans want the Doctor to give them the ability to carry out an Indy Ploy just like the Daleks want Davros to do for them. Fortunately, the Doctor and the humans the Daleks brought as slave labor manage to not only destroy both of them, but capture Davros for trial.
Sarah seems to pick up this trait from her old mentor, given this exchange from the first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures:
Maria: Do you mean you haven't got a plan? Nothing?
Sarah: No. The people I fight have plans and weapons but I don't. It's what makes me different.
Farscape: John Crichton lives for the Indy Ploy, which is fortunate, because the Uncharted Territories throw monkey wrenches into it every damn time. Near the end of the series, D'Argo wonders why things never go smoothly, to which John replies, "Murphy's Law."
John: Go on, keep movin'. I got a plan.
Aeryn: Don't tell me you have a plan.
John: What's wrong with them?
Aeryn: They never work.
John: Damn these doors. They always work.
Aeryn: Not the way you detail them.
John: Hey, look, I get results. You're hung up on details!
Aeryn: Your plans never work!
And this exchange from season 2:
Aeryn: Would you like to learn how to do this, or are you content to continually display your ineptitude?
John: My ineptitude? You mean my improvisation, the kind that bails your sorry milita—
Or this one, when trying to attract the villain's attention:
John: I know you can see me. Bad guys can always see me. That's because my plans suck.
Mal Reynolds from Firefly also has to do this a lot, as his simple plans go wrong with such regularity that you could set your watch to his cries of:
Mal: It never goes smooth. Why don't it ever go smooth?
Similarly lampshaded in this exchange:
Zoe: Captain'll come up with a plan. Kaylee: That's good, right? Zoe: It's possible you're not remembering some of his previous plans.
Mal: I don't plan on any shooting taking place during this job. Jayne: Yeah, well, what you plan and what takes place ain't ever exactly been similar.
As Shepherd Book points out, Mal has a way, which is better than a plan.
When something has gone terribly awry, and he is forced to come up with another plan:
Mal: This is all part of our new plan.
Kaylee: How exactly is—
Mal: Still workin' the details.
Mind you, when he finally comes up with a plan in Serenity, it's so utterly horrifying you start to understand why he doesn't do it more often.
Mal: I start fighting a war, I guarantee you'll see something new.
Leverage is fond of using these after the original plan goes awry. Prime examples include "The Beantown Bailout Job" and "The Ho Ho Ho Job".
Ford isn't known as a mastermind for nothing. In fact, a lot of times this "improvisation" is just another part of The Plan of the episode.
Dr. House. As brilliant a doctor as he is, makes it up 98% of the time.
This was MacGyver's usual Modus Operandi. It was also lampshaded several times:
Murdoc: You know, MacGyver, that's why you're so hard to beat. Nobody knows what you're going to do next. Including you.
Especially O'Neill. Then again, that could just be the actor noting how small the distance really is from his previous role in MacGyver.
McKay is asked at least once per episode to find a way to fix the problems cause by someone's failed plan, oftentimes Sheppard's or his own.
McKay: "I'm Dr. Rodney McKay, alright? Difficult takes a few seconds; impossible, a few minutes."
In Stargate Universe, this is O'Neill's expectation of Young, who is stuck with his people on a barely-functioning ship galaxies away from home. Guess it must be a requirement of all SGC personnel, given what they have to deal with.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Attached", Picard and Crusher are psychically linked and on the run from the aliens du jour, and so she's able to call him on pretending to know where they're going; he claims that it's important for The Good Captain to sometimes project the image of understanding and confidence in dangerous situations.
One of the reasons Star Trek is so popular is because even the smart characters have no qualm with junking the manual and making it up as they go. Both Kirk and Picard were masters of making stuff up and making it look good. Closely followed by Spock and Riker. Even McCoy got in on it during "Amok Time" — within ten minutes of the revelation that Kirk and Spock were supposed to fight each other to the death, he's come up with a plan to thwart it.
The evil masterminds of 24 constantly have their Evil Plans foiled by Jack Bauer's Indy Ploys. The man hitched a ride on the bottom of a garbage truck ... no, you're not going to beat a man like that with anything less than nuclear weapons. (And actually, not even then).
Burn Notice knows how to play this one, too. Westen usually has multiple plans, yet they frequently resort to throwing them all away and improvising on the spot. For instance, :
Max: What's going on here? Do we have a plan?
Michael Westen: A plan, no, I... got some tactical goals, and a rough approach?
Max: A rough approach, well, that's terrific. Thank god we got that, because we don't have backup, video feeds or working coms.
Michael: Welcome to my world.
In one particular episode, Michael's plan to capture a bad guy relied on getting close to him and using that position to maneuver him into a position in which he could capture him with little difficulty. When that failed due to Michael being exposed as a fake, he decided that they didn't have enough time to come up with a new plan (which probably wouldn't work anyway since the bad guy had seen everyone in Team Westen), broke into the bad guy's hotel room, clubbed him over the head and dumped him into a truck for delivery to the authorities.
That said, when his plans work well, they're a sight to behold. When his plans are improvised, almost without exception, they're even better.
Frasier's many convoluted Farce-structured episodes often involved extremely fast-paced Disaster Dominoes, Simple Plans, or Fawlty Towers Plots that required the characters to frantically come up with new ideas as they were swept along with the action to keep their plans from descending into havoc. Naturally, because it was a comedy where no one gets killed, this only made the hijinks and misunderstandings infinitely worse, as Too Many Cooks spoil the broth, and they had to inform everyone else about all their new schemes and lies in addition to the list of volatile situations they were juggling. One would expect they wished twitter existed in the '90s, but on the other hand, they could often be downright ingenious at improv...
Callen's plan in the season 3 premiere of NCIS: Los Angeles consists of "Save Hetty." That's it.
Danny Quinn in Primeval likes to do this a lot, especially when he's disobeying orders. His best one was getting into a helicopter and making a huge Giganotosaurus chase him through the time portal.
Then he returns without the helicopter.
"Do you want me to go back and get it?"
Person of Interest: Reese occasionally falls back to this when the situation is too dire or Finch is somehow unable to help him for whatever reason. He's very good at it.
Danny's specialisation in Hustle, as opposed to Mickey's careful planning.
This seems to be the modus operandi of Harmon Rabb from JAG, no matter whether it is in a fistfight, in the cockpit, or in a courtroom.
This happens all the time on Teen Wolf. Scott and Stiles especially tend to end up just winging it.
Stiles: Okay, one question: what are you gonna do if the Alpha doesn't show up?
Scott: I don't know.
Stiles: And what are you gonna do if he does show up?
Most players too. Your plan will go horribly wrong at the first step, or you don't even bother with a plan in the first place; either way, you'll end up winging things.
Also the standard plan for most Shadowrunners In-and-Out of Universe.
Adorjan's Excellency in Exalted specifically can't enhance anything that's planned out in advance, meaning that anyone using said Excellency has to use these on a regular basis.
A common feature of every tabletop wargame, be it Warhammer, Iron Kingdoms or anything else. Sometimes you just lose a lynchpin of your strategy on turn one or two - your mech takes an unlucky hit and is crippled, your wizard decides to explore a new career as a frog or a smoking crater containing Smoldering Shoes, your reserves are delayed, your tanks are stuck in an unfortunate terrain feature - and you have to wing it from there.
Heracles/Hercules was a master of this, especially in the course of his Twelve Labors. When he found out that the Nemean Lion's hide was impervious to weapons, he strangled it. To fight the Hydra, which could grow its heads back, he (or one of his friends, at his request) seared the stumps with a torch. And to clean up the enormous and never-cleaned Aegean Stables, he uses his strength to alter the course of two nearby rivers.
There were originally only ten tasks, those last two were disqualified for exactly the ploys he came up with. Of course, since the tasks were meant to kill him the ploys still work.
Sir Gawain from Arthurian mythology once held off a massive angry mob while using a chess board as a shield. Not to be outdone, the damsel he was protecting started chucking the pieces (which would have been made of carved stone) at the mob. She knocked a few people out before the whole affair was through.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: The titular Phoenix Wright is essentially the videogaming world's avatar of this trope. Both he and his successor Apollo Justice rely almost exclusively upon plans built upon the Indy Ploy; especially on the first day of court when they usually have no clue who the real culprit is. Repeatedly, the decision to have new information added to a testimony involves the player character thinking something to the effect of 'if only I knew where I was going with this'.
Although this is completely averted in the last case of the first game, when Phoenix tricks the Big Bad by not only making them incriminate themselves, but also provide a legal reason as to why the evidence Phoenix collected in an unauthorized investigation can be presented in court all without said big bad knowing it. Phoenix very clearly states on multiple occasions during the final part of the case that he had planned it all out. In fact this plan will actually fool not only the Big Bad, but players themselves, resulting in a large percentage of people getting a game over on their first run through, due to being tricked by Phoenix (Part of the plan was to refuse to do something that 99% of players would naturally assume they had to do, thus resulting in them picking the wrong opinion). It turns out he CAN plan things out after all.
However, in the fourth game where the aforementioned Mr. Justice is the main character, Phoenix seems to have taken up a new way of doing things.
It should be noted that this is what makes the games so compelling because the player feels exactly this way as well (and it's the player who calls the shots!).
Before there was Phoenix, Roger Wilco of Space Quest was this trope on two legs and a mop. Using a jockstrap and a Rubik's cube to distract a monster? Ducking into the orat cave to dodge a Sarien probe droid and watching them blow each other up? He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer by anyone's stretch, but when it comes to improvising a way to save the day (and his ass), he's a freaking grandmaster.
Done by Gabe Logan in Syphon Filter II in the first level, nearly word for word.
Mass Effect: Most of Commander Shepard's adventures, due to the fact that s/he has no access to trustworthy intelligence on what is happening and is constantly thrown into situations with no idea what is going on or what s/he is going to do about it. The final mission of Mass Effect 2 is inherently unplannable, as nobody has ever seen what is on the other side of the Omega-4 Relay and returned to tell the tale.
Commander Shepard: We fight, or we die. That's the plan.
Unfortunately for everyone, Aria may be a hell of a badass, but she's a terrible strategist, meaning that the entirety of the Omega DLC for the third game is an Indy Ploy on the part of her and Shepard, after everything falls to pieces.
Nyreen: How did you know you could do that?
Aria: I didn't.
Adell from Disgaea 2 (with a little help from his family) opens the game with the truly brilliant plan of summoning Overlord Zenon, god of all overlords, into his family's back yard so he, being the mighty level 1 character that he is, can beat him up. After the summoning screws up and summons Rozalin, Zenon's daughter instead, Adell is forced into improvising plan after plan for the next six or so chapters as he cluelessly tries to track down Zenon on his own.
The main character of Fate/stay night, Shirou Emiya, relies on this quite often, which tends to cause discomfort among his True Companions. During several "strategy meetings", his allies reprimand him for his usual response of "let's just go and do it".
Meh, it worked on Kirei. And Saber tried to do this once (her attempt to attack the magus at the Ryudo Temple in Fate), which lead to Shirou calling her on it.
The protagonist of Tsukihime, Tohno Shiki, despite constantly facing incredibly powerful vampires, never has a plan. Justified in that he really has no idea what he's going up against before he actually faces it. His main means of winning is a combination of inborn talent, inhuman instinct and calmly thinking out the situation DURING the situation. In the end, he's pretty much just making everything up as he goes along. Sometimes his partner at the time (Arcueid, Ciel or Sion usually) try to plan things out ahead of time, but those plans rarely go well. In fact, it's occasionally implied that his VERY EXISTENCE throws a metaphorical wrench in any plans anyone could come up with. This is partially attributed to the fact that no one really knows what Shiki is capable of, including himself. Thus, everyone is constantly surprised by anything he pulls off, and frequently does things in each subsequent game that would have been impossible in a prior one. In other words, in Shiki's case, it's practically impossible to plan ahead.
In a later quest where you get a much more reliable set of weapons to fit each combat type. One of the Vyrelords helping you even comments the previous weapon is a complete joke and could be snapped with no effort. So not only it's subverted, but possibly averted too.
During the first level of Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction, the city is under attack, and every attempt Ratchet makes to get where he's going is inevitably blocked by destruction or a large and dangerous robot.
Clank: Ratchet, the Planetary Defence Center is 200 cubits below us. How do you propose we get down?
Ratchet: I don't know. I'm kinda winging it right now.
From Starcraft, we have Commander Jim Raynor. Despite the fact that he's well respected by Terran and Protross alike for his sound tactical mind, he never really plans anything in advance: he just makes it up as he goes along.
Mengsk also used to do that during his rebel days, especially in the novels. At one point, his ship, the Hyperion, is confronted by Duke's Norad II with the usual "prepare to be boarded" speech. Mengsk sets up a siege tank in a hangar bay and opens the doors. He then heads full speed at the Norad, changing course at the last second in order to graze the Confederate's shields (yes, they're equipped with shields). As the Hyperion is passing the Norad, Mengsk orders the tank to fire. Duke is confused how a battlecruiser can fire a broadside, as all their weapons are forward-mounted (a stupid design, really). When he finds out it was a tank, he just stands for a few minutes with his mouth open, letting Mengsk get away. To note, Mengsk is a student of history, especially the Age Of Sail.
Nathan Drake, of the Uncharted series. Being made of the same cloth as Indiana Jones, no-one is surprised when Nate's idea of a plan is making things up as he goes along.
Elena: I sure hope you know what you're doing.
Nate: I don't have the faintest idea!
And even when he does plan ahead, he does it poorly:
Elena: What are you going to do then? Nate: I haven't thought that far ahead!
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, late in the game. It's appropriate considering the gamer usually doesn't know what they're doing either, latching onto any nearby poles or running across walls that might lead to the next area.
Farah: What are you doing?
Prince: I don't know, I'm working it out as I go.
Tidus from Final Fantasy X lives by this, and gets the entire party to go along with it near the end.
The rest of the group seem to start embracing this mentality (that, or Idiot Hero), most notably when they take an action that will destroy the world with no idea how to stop that from happening beyond the vague notion that "if we have the power to destroy [it], we must have the power to save it". A concept that doesn't really hold true in a lot of situations.
And as a villainous Final Fantasy example we have Kefka Palazzo of Final Fantasy VI. His long-term goal: Amass power and abuse it. Stuff he did simply because the opportunity presented itself: Almost everything else... This could be attributed to him being so Ax-Crazy that his mind cannot formulate detailed plans. Whichever the case, it all worked out pretty friggin' well for him. To the great misfortune of the ones who's lives were ruined, lost, or both.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is full of double and triple agents (and a quadruple agent!), who are constantly deceiving each other and furthering their own Batman Gambits. Of noticeable exception is EVA who pulls off one of the greatest deceptions in the entire game. While being on an undercover mission for the Chinese in Russia, she meets an American in the forest who ask her if she is ADAM. Thinking quick she just says that ADAM couldn't make it. The American tells her his name is Snake, so she gambles and claims her name to be EVA. And he completely buys it, even though she didn't know the password.
Monkey Island: Guybrush Threepwood has to do this constantly. He spends much effort in the first game obtaining a way to kill a ghost. Then LeChuck knocks him clear across the island, landing him near a root grog vending machine. Guybrush just uses a can of grog instead. Previously, he comes up with a plan to stop LeChuck from marrying Elaine. He gets to the church only to find out that she has already escaped. Tales of Monkey Island is kicked off by Guybrush improvising, which goes horribly wrong.
As with Guybrush, so too with George Stobart of Broken Sword. Who else can discover an ancient artifact and escape an assassin with half a roll of hand-towels, a sturdy branch, a hand buzzer and a working knowledge of Latin?
Lampshaded in the second game; when Nicole asks him what the hell he's doing, George tells he he likes to try random stuff in a crisis and see what sticks.
Selphie Tilmitt in Final Fantasy VIII pulls a mean Indy Ploy, as she proves when she leads the mission to the Galbadian missile base. She has nothing but a stolen military vehicle and some spare uniforms she happened to find in it, and no plan at all beyond "go in, break everything we can, and blow the sucker sky-high" - and she does.
The Team Fortress 2 video "Meet the Medic" provides a rather spectacular one: The RED Medic invents the Ubercharge system by sticking a strange device onto a baboon heart and implanting it into Heavy (whose original heart exploded when it had said device attached to it). The two then rush off into battle, and just as Medic is about to pop his very first charge...
Heavy: Doctor! Are you sure this will work?!
Medic: HA HA! I HAVE NO IDEA!
(cue Ubercharge and the BLU team getting their asses handed to them)
This phenomenon happens quite a bit in-game as well, since people are rather unpredictable, you finish just about every round discovering new ways to play.
In Lost Horizon, the main protagonist likes to operate this way, responding to the suggestion that he hasn't thought things through by saying "It's a lot more fun if you just worry about these things later." Given that the game takes a fair amount of inspiration from Indiana Jones, this may be a deliberate nod.
Used several times in all three of the Max Payne games. Max often finds himself wandering into a fortified complex full of gun-toting goons armed only with his trusty beretta and a handful of painkillers and no plan beyond 'kill the bad guys'. Somewhat subverted in that Max doesn't really care if he gets gunned down in a blaze of glory or not, since he's a notorious Death Seeker.
Resident Evil 6: In his third chapter, Jake decides he's Tired of Running and decides to take down the attack helicopter that's hounding him and Chris's team, but then admits to Sherry that he's making it up as he goes and has no idea how he's going to pull it off. Fortunately, Sherry just happens to have some explosive rounds with her to even the odds.
Bioshock Infinite. This is Booker DeWitt's standard procedure throughout the entire game. He's constantly jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, having to improvise in order to find Elizabeth, catch up to her again when she runs off and rescue her when she's captured. Justified because he has false memories of his past and a severe lack of useful information from his employers who do know what's going on - the Luteces. Lampshaded right after he kills Comstock: when Elizabeth asks him how they're going to destroy the Tower and the Siphon he says "I don't know, but I'll think of something on the way."
Narbonic's Helen Narbon is an avowed fan of this approach: "It's times like these I almost question my usual strategy of doing whatever dumb thing pops into my head."
Sheriff Pony: Topato has never lost a battle, and prefers to act without planning in order to create a "chaos factor" so that the battle's inevitable victory may also yield some unexpected, interesting side-results.
Casper of Darken is good with these. Highlighted even further in his solo chapter with the Yuan-Ti Jade, which reads like a swords-and-sorcery fantasy Indy comic - complete with doomsday device!
This is not unusual, and in fact it's unusual for a plan to not devolve into one sooner or later (often within minutes).
This is Mega Man's and Quint's modus operandi in MS Paint Masterpieces. The fact that Mega Man broke down all of his carefully constructed and thought-out schemes with just making it up as he goes along is the straw that breaks Dr. Wily's back. Formerly provided the page quote:
Quint: Ha, Loser. A true tactician doesn't know WHAT the hell he's doing until he's halfway done with it.
Meta example with Homestuck - Andrew Hussie had a basic idea for the characters and plot when he began it, but most of what you see and read was made up along the way. Problem Sleuth takes this even further, having had only its setting and main character designed in advance, and the rest made up by Hussie and the readers.
Parson from Erfworld is a grand master of the Indy Ploy. He was summoned to be the perfect warlord and save an army outnumbered a zillion to one and losing badly. What he had accomplished up to that point had been impressive but he had not proven infallible. When his officers start to question him, he directly explains the concept of the Indy Ploy to his troops◊. As this speech happened two "volumes" ago in-comic, it isn't much of a spoiler that he finds a way.
In the Whateley Universe, most of the fights that Team Kimba get into fall into this trope, since so far they haven't planned out any of the major confrontations that have dropped onto them. Chaka lives by this trope, when she's not actually thinking things through enough to be The Chessmaster.
LEEEEROY JENKINS!!! is an example of the 'What Were You Thinking?' variety. While the video was staged, along with Leeroy's blinding incompetence, the creators said it was based on a real (although presumably less over-the-top) event.
Unlike many practitioners of the Indy Ploy, Skitter, protagonist of Worm, prefers to go into battle with a solid plan. When that's not possible, or when unexpected circumstances derail the plan, she has a gift for inventing effective tactics on the fly using anything and everything she can get her hands (or insects) on.
Dr. Kondraki of the SCP Foundation loves this. Some of the steps of his plan to terminate SCP-083 were "Wing It," "Make Something Up," "Cross That Bridge When I Come To It," and "Put My Head Between My Knees And Kiss My Ass Goodbye".
In STO Forum: Versus thread (rp) the players are frequently reduced to this, although Eleya does this more than most. Before executing one of her wackier plans her player refers to her as going into "Crazy Improvising Bajoran B***h" mode. The end result of that particular improvisation was her using the Iconian computer virus to singlehandedly destroy a Borg probe and a tactical cube and render the entire system impregnable to the Borg. The DM gave up and Dropped a Bridge on the Borg Queen offscreen.
"The Boiling Rock" actually has something of a running conversation between Zuko and Sokka throughout the episode on when to think things out, and when to just go with this. They decide to plan what they can, and improvise when they need to.
In early Ben 10, the titular character expressed "Who needs a plans when you've got the watch!" thought process, often selecting the alien forms that possessed the most brute strength or coolest powers. In "Hunted", a fake bounty hunter calls Ben out on this primitive strategy, and since then, he has been more creative with the Ominitrix. Well, more or less.
Sponge Bob Square Pants: Although Plankton is usually shown to have elaborate scheme, he does hang a lampshade on this concept on at least one occasion.
Plankton: Give me the secret formula OR ELSE!
Krabs: Or else what?
Plankton: Uh, I don't know. I didn't think I'd get this far.
A common theme in early episodes of Reboot was that Bob never thought more than 6 nanoseconds ahead, and Dot never did anything without careful forethought. Naturally this led to friction as the two competed to prove which approach was best, while events provided a subtle Aesop that a balance between the two was really the best approach.
The founding father of game theory, John Von Neumann, famously said that a random strategy is the only strategy that cannot be guaranteed to be beaten by some other strategy. So, if you are going up against someone who is smarter, with more resources, and whose likelihood of understanding your strategy (if you had one) and replying with a better one is 100%, your only option for a non-zero chance of success is an Indy Ploy.
This level has been reached with the best chess playing programs. They can still be beaten by human grand masters, but by far the most effective opening strategy for doing so is to make a random opening that makes no sense whatsoever. There's no way that the computer isn't going to know any coherent opening game and counter it. (Computers can use brute force to compute every possible course many moves into the future, so there's no way for a human, with much more limited ability to examine possible future states of the game, to compete with that approach. Random play allows a human to, sometimes, reach a place in the phase space of possible games where they have enough of an advantage to win.)
As the old adage goes, the most dangerous opponent is a complete newbie because you don't know what he's going to do.
Bob and George: the author freely admits that a large portion of the comic is done on a day-to-day basis, so the creation of the comic is more or less a Real Life Indy Ploy.
Not entirely uncommon among serial authors. Often, one will have the big events plotted out (character deaths, villain appearances), but will come up with the intervening comics as he or she makes them.
Disgruntled Ferret of MS Paint Masterpieces (whose comic is posted on the Bob and George website) had a story all planned out, but lost some sprite sheets he prepared. He was forced to improvise and change the whole ending to his version of events for the second Megaman game. It worked out surprisingly well.
A few real books were written this way (the author just making it up as he goes along in one draft with no revisions), such as the novel Hawaii.
As well as the entire Lord of the Rings. Tolkien had a vague idea of the ending, but he had no idea how to get there until he got there. Every big event, from beginning to end, was designed while it was being written. The only scene he even tried to write ahead of time was the climactic scene inside Mt. Doom, and the final one was still written only when the story got to it.
Rumiko Takahashi never really plans ahead. She just comes up with the story by a chapter by chapter basis.
Writer Sid Fleischman once quipped, "I'm anxious to get to my desk each morning to find out what's going to happen."
This was actually how American football's signature feature, the forward pass, came into being. In the early 20th Century, many colleges were considering abandoning Walter Camp's football code in favor of rugby. In a game between the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia, a punter threw the ball towards a teammate down field while trying to avoid getting creamed by an oncoming rush. The receiver made a 70-yard touchdown (including the pass) to win the game for the UNC Tarheels, 7-0. This was witnessed by one Johnny Heisman, who related the story to Camp. Seeing a way to open up the game and make it more exciting to fans, he agreed to legalize the forward pass. Along with the abolition of the Flying Wedge Formation and the adoption of heavy protective padding, changes designed to fix the other problem of players being killed and crippled, the forward pass is credited with saving the game of American football.
The Duke of Wellington said of the French generals he defeated: "They planned their campaigns just as you might make a splendid set of harnesses. It looks very well; and answers very well; until it gets broken; and then you are done for. Now I made my campaigns of ropes. If anything went wrong, I tied a knot and went on."
A celebrated military mind of the 19th century, German Generalfelmarschall Hulmuth von Moltke the Elder, said: "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength." This is usually paraphrased as "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Even if you do have a plan, once things get started, it can only help so much.
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) repeatedly states in his memoirs that, being an archaeologist rather than a military man, he knew very little about how to fight a revolution. Therefore, in the beginning of his time with the Arab revolt he was making up a plan as he went. It was not until several months into the campaign, when he was laid up with a case of dysentery, that he had a chance to analyze the goals and methods of the campaign he had been helping to lead! He ended up almost single-handedly inventing modern guerilla warfare.
Just about any space mission looks a lot like this. When things go wrong (and things always go wrong to a greater or lesser degree), the success or failure of the mission, and often the lives of the astronauts, depend on the resourcefulness and cleverness of the astronauts and Mission Control. The Apollo 11 and 13 missions both had several examples of this. In large part this is because of NASA's tendency to be Crazy-Prepared: if something happens that isn't covered by "flip to page 173 of the LM Operator's Handbook and follow procedure 6", it's really out there.