Many great stories start with the author asking themselves, “What if x then y?” And a new story is born. “What if there was a boy who lived in a cupboard who was actually a wizard?” These two simple words have incredible powers in a writer’s mind.
One of the tutors for my Masters programs preaches the power of “what if.” If you’re stuck for a story idea, just start writing out a bunch of what if possibilities. -What if aliens came to the universe on a motorcycle? -What if the earth stopped spinning, and a 10 year old girl was the only person who could set it right again? Just think of as many what ifs as you can, until your brain hurts, and then go back through your list and start writing the one that sticks out in your mind the most.
I recently heard Katherine Arden, author of the Winternight Trilogy, speak in a Q&A, and I realized how many times I heard her say that she used “what if.” For those who haven’t heard of The Bear and the Nightingale, the story follows a strong, magical heroine in Medieval Russia in a time when women couldn’t really be strong, and in a time where witches were burned in pyres. Arden’s initial question to herself was, “What if a folkloric Russian woman landed in Medieval Russia? What would that look like?” And then once her story base was set, she added depth and texture with the question, “What would friction between the dual belief of Russian Paganism and Russian Orthodoxy look like?” And with those two questions, she created an incredibly rich three part story with a wonderfully original heroine, amazing supporting characters, and a beautiful, complex, realistic setting.
So in part, I’m plugging this trilogy that has now become one of my favourites. However, I am also giving all the writers out there the simplest writing exercise you could ask for –a way to break writer’s block (if you believe in it), a way to add depth to your story and make that story come alive. So go ahead and give it a try–what if you do?