Using What Ifs to Generate Story Ideas

[Originally posted on my former blog, Michael Runs the Gamut]

I have (over the past two years) written a few posts about the idea of using the phrase “What if” as an idea generator for developing a plot.

“What if” novels are often about large historical events, like Kennedy’s assassination, the D-Day invasion, or the birth of Alexander the Great; and they usually steer the story in a direction like this:

“What if Lee Harvey Oswald were stopped before the assassination, or perhaps Kennedy was only wounded and didn’t die?” What would he have accomplished during his presidency? How would that have changed our lives today?

“What if the D-Day landing hadn’t happened?” Perhaps a storm sank most of the landing craft, or Hitler discovered the real staging areas and bombed them before they could embark. How would the war have turned out? Would we be living in a German-centric world?

“What if Phillip II of Macedon had fathered only girls?” Would the empire have been thrown into chaos with Macedonian generals fighting to gain power instead of spreading their territory far and wide? (Note: It was very chaotic after Alexander’s death anyway, and the Macedonian Empire did break apart into smaller kingdoms.)

The implication of a “what if” storyline is usually that our lives today, or at least the lives of a few succeeding generations in that area of the world would be radically different in some way. For writers, it can also be a powerful tool to develop smaller story ideas. The “what if” doesn’t have to be applied to large events, not even to historical ones. For the writer, it can be used to mentally carry any event into the future, to establish what might occur to a character (or characters) in a given situation.

What if someone (let’s call him Doug), instead of taking his usual route when he walks his dog, one morning detours onto a side street? What could happen? Maybe he stumbles on several men kidnapping a woman. Maybe he’s not wearing his glasses so he can’t see them very well, but they don’t know that. Soon he’s on the run. How does he deal with the dog? Taking the dog with him could place the dog in danger, but also might add another dimension to the story. What if the dog is the story? Maybe the bad guys follow Doug back to his house and kill him and his family, but one of the thugs can’t bear to leave the dog behind. (A totally different story).

That’s the idea behind using What Ifs. Take a simple, everyday situation, and wonder what would happen if one element was changed. Look for more What If posts in the coming months.

What techniques do you use to generate story ideas?


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