What If - The Question Of Your Story
One of my favorite games to play is what I call the “worst case scenario game”. It started as a mental exercise to help deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that nearly caused me to flunk out of college, but it’s a great game for stretching your imagination and following a thread to it’s conclusion. What is the worst thing you can think of at any given time? Pick that, and ask yourself “what if?” Follow that thought to it’s natural conclusion, and see where it take you.
You’re familiar with the idea, even if you don’t realize it. It works like this:
“I’m not feeling well.”
“What would happen if I skipped work today?”
“I will stay in bed and sleep.”
“What would happen then?”
“I will sleep in, but then my sleep schedule will be thrown off.”
“And, what if my schedule is thrown off?”
“I won’t be able to sleep at the normal time, and I’ll have trouble waking up.”
“What if I can’t wake up easily?”
“I will miss more work, and lose my job.”
“If I lose my job, I won’t be able to afford food.”
“If I can’t feed myself, I will starve.”
“If I’m starving, I will beg people for food...”
You get the idea. Inevitably, like a Direct TV Commercial, you begin to notice what’s called the “slippery slope fallacy”. In the example, a sore throat can lead to becoming a beggar in the streets, but that is extreme. It’s intentionally extreme to make the fallacy more obvious. But, there are less dramatic examples.
“I don’t want to see my friends.”
“If I see my friends, I will have to put on a happy face.”
“Putting on a happy face is exhausting.”
“If I get worn out, I won’t have the energy for school or work.”
“If I don’t have the energy for school, I will fail my classes and drop out.”
“If I drop out, I won’t see my friends anymore, and I will be all alone.”
“If I’m lonely, I won’t want to meet new people.”
“If I don’t meet new people, I will be lonely...”
You will come to a conclusion that is either so absurd that you can’t help but see the flaws in the logic, “If I go see my friends, then it might lead to me not having any friends.” Or you come to circular reasoning where the conclusion is supported by the premise. “I will be alone,” and “If I’m alone I don’t want to meet new people.”
This game is an amazing tool for overcoming moments of anxiety that hold us back from exploring some the most interesting parts of life, because at some point, the argument collapses in on itself. When you can see the fallacy it becomes easier to accept it as a lie told by fear and anxiety. I used it a lot to help me get through some of my rougher patches.
But do you know what else it’s good for?
What is your what if?
Every good narrative starts from a basic question. There is a place where all good stories start, and a natural progression to the telling of a well-crafted tale. Everything that happens to your protagonist, every twist and turn and eventual outcome stems from the basis of you, the writer, asking the same question over and over again.
When you’re crafting a new story, you might have a great idea for a character, or a setting, or even a plot hook, but unless you’re one of those people who has a natural talent for spewing forth magical plots without putting any thought or attention into them, then inevitable your mind will keep turning back to this question.
Your plot rests on it. Your characters are sustained by it. Your momentum thrives on in. Without “what if” your story can’t progress; answering this question is how a well-crafted narrative moves from one point to the next.
It starts with what I call the “big” what if; the question that forms the whole focus of your story. “What if an ancient evil holds the key to killing off all the free people of the world?” Answering that question will give you and idea of what story you’re trying to tell. Then you follow it up with “smaller” what if’s, until you have a premise. “What if the free people are waging a war for their survival? What if the key to destroying this evil once and for all rests in the hands of the most unlikely of heroes hidden in a forgotten backwater part of the world?” When J.R.R. Tolkien answered these what ifs, we ended up with the beginning to The Lord of the Rings.
You can do a lot with this question.
Daydreaming Is Work
Rather than a hobbit, your protagonist may be a spunky 14-year-old middle-school student with psychic powers. That’s great, but that’s not a story until you ask “what if something happens to them?”. When you begin to explore this question your story unfolds. “What if it’s midterms, and Jim uses his psychic powers to pass an exam?” Will he pass? Will he get caught? Will the power prove to be overwhelming and addictive? Does he read the thoughts of the wrong person and end up failing anyway? The first “what if” question is where your story starts, and the way you answer the subsequent questions is how your story takes shape.
The best part is, it is absolutely low risk. This is a mental exercise. If you don’t like where the what if’s take you, just find a new answer. Start over. Ask the question again, but from a different perspective. Until you actually start your outline (or your story, if you’re a pantser), you have the unlimited capability to change your mind. At this point, you’ve wasted nothing but ideas. And ideas are never wasted.
Ask yourself “what if”. Some answer might come easily, and some you might have to work for. But follow the answers to the end, and you’ll see what kind of story comes out of it. I think you’ll be surprised at what you can find.
What is your “what if?”