The two most powerful words in the writer’s toolbox have got to be “What If …?”
What if the world we live in is simply a computer simulation- (The Matrix)
What if certain people can travel through time but can’t control it- (The Time Traveler’s Wife)
What if robots developed into sentient beings- (Ex-Machina)
What if Romeo and Juliet lived on NY’s upper west side and were involved in street gangs? (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise used this what if to create West Side Story)
If you’re like me, you already use “what if” at the beginning of a new project, that exciting time when we brainstorm ideas, sift through premises, try to decipher the general shape of your next novel. It’s a logline in the form of a question: What if a play-by-the-book surgeon struggles to protect herself and her teenage daughter from a sadistic stalker, only to find herself the prime suspect when he turns up dead?
But even after your concept is finalized, don’t forget you can still use this powerful tool at various times throughout your novel to help you keep the reader engaged.
- Use “what if” to develop your main and secondary characters. What if one of them has a drinking problem? Was a football player in college? Writes poetry at night? Is perpetually on a diet? Calls their mother every day? Is drowning in credit card debt? Was bullied as a child? Which of these ideas are a fit and more importantly, which ones add depth and resonance to an otherwise flat character?
- Use to brainstorm an inciting incident that will hook the reader in the first ten pages. What if they receive a threatening letter? Learn their spouse has been unfaithful? Get a bad medical diagnosis? Find their house on fire? Are at the bank when it’s robbed?
- Use to find an appropriate setting – What if your story takes place in the dead of winter? On a farm in Nebraska? In 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War? Fifty years in the future? At a boarding school? In a suburban neighborhood? In a women’s prison?
- Use at the first catalyst or turning point – Ask your trusted readers where they think the story is going and brainstorm three other ways to go instead so you surprise them.
- In the muddy middle – When you want to escalate the pace of your story, use “what if” questions to think of ways to make matters worse for your protagonist. (but make sure they are realistic and fit the genre of your story – no flying saucers in the middle of women’s fiction, please)
- At the midpoint – Your protagonist has a “mirror moment” where their trajectory changes, sending them in a new direction. Think of ten scenarios that could realistically happen at this point and noodle around with which one will make the story more interesting.
- At the all is lost moment – You have to make things worse. How to do it? For example, what if my physician protagonist is found guilty of the murder? What if she gets off on a technicality but her career is ruined? What if her daughter is arrested as an accessory? What if she realizes who the murderer is and it’s her romantic interest?
- At the end – Brainstorm different endings. What if your POV character gets what they wanted? What if they don’t? What if they do, but the price they have to pay is too steep to bear?
During the protagonist’s journey from your novel’s beginning straight through to the end, they are faced with one decision after another. Each one of these pivot points provides you as the author an opportunity to play with the different “what if’s” that might occur. I always heed the advice I got from one of my early story coaches, Lisa Cron. “Which choice makes the story more interesting?
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s how Neil Gaiman, an innovative genius, puts it on his website: “You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just “what if…?” (What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you found out your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of the term – but you didn’t know who?”)
Next time you catch yourself going for the easy way out, the direction a reader is bound to see coming, ask yourself what if ? Take a mental break and give yourself permission to play, to imagine, to let your mind go off on wild tangents, even if you’re halfway through your manuscript. I promise you it will pay off in a more intriguing novel as well as keeping you energized and more engaged along the way.