Every story begins with an idea (an event, a scene, a character, a setting, a theme, etc.), and most ideas begin with a question and a sense of curiosity. Most of those questions start with ”What if…”. Examples:
”What if a wealthy and unmarried man in need of a wife became acquainted with a family consisting of five unmarried daughters?” (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
”What if people lived under constant surveillance, without any privacy? (1984 by George Orwell)
”What if children were forced by the government to fight in gladiatorial games?” (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
”What if a baby boy survived a killing curse?” (Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling)
”What if a large gate was found on Earth, a gate that could send people to different planets?” (Stargate directed by Roland Emmerich)
”What if…” questions can vary in a million different ways. They can ask questions about the plot, scenes, characters, and everything else that constructs a story. There are no limits.
Perhaps not all stories begin with these ”what if…” questions articulated, however, most stories are ultimately inspired by questions like these.
Why and how to use ”What if” questions
A few of the exercises that follow are loosely based on the chapter about ”What if” questions in K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel Workbook. However, here I illustrate the exercises with examples from fiction as well as offer you exercises to develop your ”What if…” questions further.
Personally I use ”What if” questions as a means to brainstorm. This is a great way for you to get new ideas, to see where an idea might take your story, sift through the ideas to find those that are adequate and interesting and those that are not good enough, etc.
How, then, should you use ”What if” questions?
Write down every question that comes to mind about your story. Don’t worry about how well articulate the questions are or how good / bad, serious / laughable they are. Go wild with your imagination — nothing is right or wrong. This is meant to be a creative exercise, like brainstorming, where nothing is written in stone. Don’t censor yourself — just write whatever comes to mind. Do this for about 15 to 30 minutes.
What if every person in the world threw trash on the ground?
What if children ruled the world?
What if someone found a magic wand?
What if aliens have visited Earth for centuries?
Choose a few of your ideas — those you might find most intriguing, dramatic, emotional, funny, or perhaps those that interest you without a specific reason (these ideas can be grains of something bigger that you won’t see until you’ve fleshed them out more fully) — and highlight, underline, or draw a circle around them; do whatever you want to highlight those ideas you want to explore.
This is the part of the creative process where you can develop your ”what if…” questions and go even more crazy with your creativity.
Begin with one of your highlighted ”what if…” questions and write it down on a new sheet of paper (physical or virtual, whichever you prefer). Now, brainstorm all the possible events you can think of that will happen in a story inspired by this ”what if…” question.
Example (let’s continue with Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling): ”What if a baby boy survived the killing curse?”:
The boy (Harry Potter) finds out he is a wizard.
Harry goes to a school for wizards and witches so he can learn magic.
Harry meets and fights the evil man who tried to kill him (Lord Voldemort).
Harry defeats Voldemort …
Your list can, of course, be more detailed than this. And since Harry Potter is a seven book series, the list should be a lot more detailed than this.
You can add notes on the development of a character. You can choose to make this into a scenes-list by brainstorming all the scenes you can think of that are inspired by your ”what if…” question. Let your creativity run free.
Many of your ideas might not be great because, let’s face it, no one brainstorms a perfect story the first time. However, you might come up with a couple of ideas that are great, and that’s really good.
Highlight those bits and pieces you believe are most intriguing when you feel like you have written down everything you can think of.
Now it’s time to explore your ideas more in depth, every twist and turn and every possible outcome you can think of. For every idea that you highlighted in the previous exercise, ask yourself: ”What if this happened instead?”
Let us see where this question can take us:
Example #1 (let’s continue using Harry Potter as an example): ”What if a baby boy survived the killing curse?”:
What if the baby boy didn’t survive? (This would basically end the story before it begun, so … bad idea.)
Example #2: ”What if a baby boy survived the killing curse?”:
What if Harry uses the knowledge he has learned through the years to fight the evil wizard who tried to kill him?
But first, during Harry’s years in school there has to bee more obstacles and every-day challenges so that he can develop as a character — lets add a bully (Draco Malfoy), and a teacher that’s a bit shady and seems untrustworthy (Professor Snape).
But, as a twist, what if this shady and untrustworthy teacher, in the end, turns out to be the bravest man in the whole story?
Again, your list can be a lot more detailed than this. Some of your ideas will probably be ridiculous, but that’s okay. Even ridiculous ideas needs to come out of your mind and be written down. Who knows what those ridiculous ideas can eventually turn into? They might inspire you to another, better, idea.
Go over your lists from the previous exercises and write down the ideas you like in a new list. This does not have to be a complete plot, scene list, or any kind of chronological order of the events that will happen in your story. Just write them down. It’s okay if you only have a couple of events that will take place in the story.
Take a look at your new list. Are your ideas rich and exiting? Do you feel like something is missing? If you have somewhat of a plot right now, is it a plot that will hold the interest of the reader?
If you feel like something is missing, ask yourself the following questions and brainstorm some more with ”what if…” questions:
”How can I add more pressure to the hero/heroine?”
”How can I add more drama to the story?”
”What event or scene (or even character) can make the story more intriguing?”
Now, go over your paper again and highlight, underline, or draw a circle around the twists, turns, and possibilities you believe you will use in your story.
The possibilities of ”what if…” questions and twists and turns are endless, but the whole reason for these exercises is to brainstorm all the ideas you have in your head — or those ideas you don’t know you have until you begin brainstorming. It’s important to brainstorm like this — mostly because it’s fun, but also because this creative process can help you find ideas that will turn out to be priceless in your story.
Have you used ”What if” questions as a part of your creative process?
Do you want a Scrivener or Microsoft Word template that will help you with the outlining of your story?
The Master Outline Template includes story structure templates, character creation templates, world building and setting templates, scene planners, and more.
Want to know more? Check out the book How to Outline Your Story with ”What if…” Questions:
Do you need help developing a plot-idea, or flesh out the idea you already have?
In How to Outline Your Story with “What if…” Questions you will find exercises on how to brainstorm ideas for your stories using ”what if…” questions.
With the exercises in this book you can, more easily, come up with new ideas for your plot, see where you need to put more pressure and drama into your story, and also flesh out your plot if you already have a basic idea.