Ahhh, the What If Question. That age-old nugget of plot bunny-generating goodness.
If you’ve ever picked up a book about writing, chatted about writing on social media, or been anywhere within twenty feet of writing in your lifetime, you’ve probably encountered the “what if” question.
You know what they say about assumptions. But, just for S & G, let’s assume you’re a shipwrecked pirate from another time. You’ve washed up on a land far from your home, and your only goal is to write a novel even though you have no prior experience with writing – at all. I don’t know why – don’t ask me. Ask you! You’re the pirate in this scenario.
Okay, my pirate writer friend, let me explain to you what the What If Question is, why it’s important, and how you’re probably already using it (even if you don’t know it).
The What If Question rides alongside every story spark
Even if you don’t ask it in so many words, you consider it. Say your story spark is a character. Clear as day, when you’re not even thinking about writing, BOOM. A character crosses your path and says, “I’m here. Let’s write!”
Do you already know everything there is to know about this character? About the story? Maybe you do – if you’re some kind of superhuman writing genius (and if so, please, share whatever you’re drinking with the rest of us!). Otherwise, you probably don’t know a whole lot. Still, you’ve got this wayward character following you around, munching cheese fries and constantly shouting, “Let’s write!”.
Guess what? You’re going to have to ask some questions, and those questions might set you off on the journey of this story. Or sometimes you might find yourself running in the opposite direction, because – let’s face it – not every single lovely story spark is going to pan out or be worthy of your time.
At some point, though, if you choose to stick with the story, those questions ultimately lead you to What If.
What if this character runs into an old friend?
Might this character be chased by a demon who rides a scooter?
How would the character react if someone snatched those cheese fries and made a run for it?
You may not use the exact 'what if' words every time - but you're still asking the question.
Here’s the tricky thing about the WIQ
(Yeah, the cool kids call it that for short.)
We know we have to ask it.
But sometimes, we can’t get away from what we know or what we’ve learned about a story. When that happens, it can become harder to ask “what if” without prejudice. This is a sticky spot where you risk squelching your own creativity with your own rules and knowledge. When you’re asking “what if”, especially at the beginning of your process, you don’t need rules. You need freedom. You need to be able to run wilder than a kid on a sugar high with a 50-gallon bucket full of cash in a toy store. (Or me with a 50-gallon bucket full of cash in a bookstore, wheeeee!)
In my own work, I’ve developed some ways to get out of my brain and abandon, or at least step back from, the things I know about my stories. These will work at any point, but I tend to use them when I’m deeper into outlining a novel. When I know just enough that every time I ask a question, I start to give myself all the reasons that thing won’t work.
The beauty of the WIQ is that it lets you venture down every single avenue – but you can’t do all that glorious exploring if you’re constantly setting up roadblocks for yourself. Break free from structure, and ask yourself “what if” with wild abandon!
Four Exciting New Ways To Explore The What If Question
The Five Senses
Yep, good ole smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound.
At first glance, they seem to lend themselves more to scene building (and I absolutely encourage you to explore each and every sense when you’re developing your scenes and settings). But because they’re a bit non sequitur, they force you to think outside the box.
What if your character smells poison in the Queen’s wine? Could touching a specific wall open a secret doorway? Would there be a reason a sound might give your character away at a crucial point?
I recently learned that a character’s room might be bugged because I started thinking about sound, and it sent me down a whole new path – who bugged the room? Why? Does my character discover it before it’s too late? Too late for what? That may never end up in my story, but it gives me something new to explore, and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Consider the key emotions that will play into your story. Every story is built around emotions. Emotions are everywhere. Inescapable! But don’t take it from me – take it from Michael in The Good Place, “You humans have so many emotions! You only need two: anger and confusion!” I suggest more than just anger and confusion, but those are fantastic places to start.
By thinking through the emotions you know will touch your characters, you can zone in on what might cause those things – or, maybe even better, what those emotions might cause your characters to do.
A character who knows the love of his life’s ex is stalking her might be driven by anger or fear or hatred. And those things might cause him to do something he wouldn’t normally do to keep his beloved safe. If that wasn’t already a critical point in your story, it might become the missing link between scenes that you’ve been searching for!
Theme can be a tricky thing to discuss with authors because everyone approaches theme differently. Some writers don’t feel strongly about themes. Others want that deeply woven meaning throughout the entirety of the story. And how, exactly, do you discover and/or employ that theme without coming off as preachy or ending with “The moral of the story is…”?
Regardless of your stance, chances are even if you think you don’t have a clue about the theme of your story, you know more than your muse is letting on. Think broad if you have to – or use this handy list to begin pinpointing where you fall. But once you have an inkling, explore your What If Question in terms of your theme. Is this a coming of age story? A battle between good and evil? What can you learn from your theme and how does that guide your characters and story?
Remember: the internet is always your friend when it comes to learning more about humans and the world around you. (Like, a lot more. More than you’ll ever want to know. Get you incognito window on if it makes you feel better.)
Why is your character her own worst enemy? Who else has been affected by her actions? What has she learned – or not learned – from that?
Theme can open up a whole new world of questions that will have you diving deeper in no time. Plus, if you’re really into using symbolism to support your theme, you might find some tasty tidbits to use for that along the way.
Key Scenes = Keywords
By the time you’re asking the WIQ, your brain is already beginning to piece together scenes. You might even know a few key scenes you’d like to include, or at least explore. Think about what keywords come to mind from those scenes.
Maybe there’s a dramatic scene where a couple finally crashes through their walls and rushes to smoosh each other in their first passionate embrace. Where is that scene set? What do you see? Are they in a bedroom? Are they kissing? Does a dragon tear off the roof and haul one of the characters away?
Okay, the key words (or keywords) there could be bedroom; kissing; dragon. And guess what: you can ask yourself “what if” about any or all of those!
What if the dragon is the father of one of the characters? Is the kiss awful? Might it make them question their relationship before it even begins? How about if the bedroom isn’t theirs, but someone else’s? Ahh – see? Now, you might have a salacious love affair. Did you know that before? Because I didn’t – but I just found out it was an option by asking!
I challenge you to think of the What If Question not just as “what if” but as “what else”
By doing this, you can destroy the rules your mind has put in place and push the boundaries of your story as far as you please. And this is just the tippy top of the chocolate fountain, writer.
I’ll bet you can sit down and come up with four more ways to expand your “what if” thinking right now if you want to. Seriously. Maybe go do that – and then get back to me. I’m always looking for new ways to ask that all-important question.
I’d love to know what you think too. Are there any other questions I should add to the list? Do you have a favorite out of this list or another list you’ve read? Let me know below.
Until next time, cheers and happy writing!
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