What If?

By Claudette Young

Okay, let’s face it. Every story, novel, poem, article begins its birthing process with those two words—what if.

What’s so special about two little words? Well, just say them out loud and then ponder them for a moment. If, when you say them, you have nothing specific in mind, you might find yourself scratching around in the loam of your mind’s depths and answer yourself with a new idea for a piece of writing.

Or, you might stumble onto a question you meant to answer sometime in the past and hadn’t yet done so. Better still, you could trip over a branch of thought leading to an answer never anticipated.

For instance, you want to do an article—say, an investigative piece. Nothing deep or momentous, really. Just something speculative. What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? Next question—how would this country have changed? Take one aspect only—the space race, for instance. You could get acres of speculative material because you used two simple words. A book, a movie, who knows what.

Every SF/F writer worth her/his authorship owes a ton of credit to those words. Neither genre would have ever been created without them. Alternative historical fiction is the same way. It wouldn’t exist.

But then, investigative reporting and journalism in general wouldn’t have expanded either. Poets wouldn’t imagine themselves out among the stars. Songwriters would have been left adrift in a sea of perpetual schmaltz in lieu of originality and depth.

This inspiration, however, activates more than a storyline or musical score. It stimulates the writer. What if you took that story idea that just would not work, regardless of your attempts to shove it into compliance and applied it instead to a different time zone. For instance, that story you placed in the present and it just won’t work. What if you turned it around? Made it about the man as the protagonist and the woman as the villain? Or, better yet, do that and place the story’s timeline into WWII and he’s a 4-F non-combatant? Maybe that would give you more grit, more meat and tons of possibilities.

Then again, did you ask yourself “What if …” at the beginning of your war with words. What if I’m no good at writing? What if no one likes what I write?

I doubt seriously if any writer began without asking those same questions. Did you follow them up with “But what if I’m good? What if I have a knack for this thing called writing?”

Questions beginning with “What if” can be negative or positive. They are always worth asking, though. Discovery cannot happen without them.

It’s up to you to determine the question’s answer.  Best-selling author Holly Lisle teaches this major lesson. When you’ve taken your main character to what you believe is her final straw, ask yourself, “what’s the worst possible outcome of this situation for the character?” Think on that answer and then ask, “What if she …” That’s when you run the character into the ground with survival at the end and a lesson learned that leads to the conclusion.

And yes, there is more to that particular lesson, but I’ve given you the kernel. It’s your turn to run with it.

Two words to solve problems, discover unknowns, or to speculate for clarity/investigation. Two words we use all the time, oft times in conjunction wish our personal choices. And yet, that’s all writing is—personal choices strung together to tell a tale, usually about someone/something else. On those rare occasions when a writer tells tales of her own life, the result is the same. The tale revolves around those personal choices made and leads to the person’s final persona.

All creation begins with a “what if?” No matter where you turn or the subject of focus, someone asked the question to begin the hunt for the answer.

I hope you try this, recognize and acknowledge the technique, if you haven’t already. And if you do use it on a regular basis or to get your writer-self out of sticky spots of plotting, share your success with others. Just think what might happen if you spread word of your experience with other writers.

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