What if?

by limebirdlaura

When I was a kid I exasperated my grandmother, Memaw as she’s known to me as, with my “what if” questions. But what if the car breaks down? But what if it snows? But what if the boogey man really is under my bed? But what if, but what if, but what if? Sometimes she’d just tell me she was going to stop acknowledging me until I moved onto another topic. Today I don’t “what if” people to death like I used to when I was a kid, but I still dwell over my what ifs internally.

One Christmas when I was around 16-years-old, Memaw gave me the Stephen King book On Writing. Oh, you can’t imagine my delight when my eyes poured over a section where King himself talked about the importance of the “What if” questions.

What if a famous author is involved in a wreck, and is then rescued by his number 1 fan, who happens to be quite insane?

What if a teenage girl with raging telekinesis is bullied by her classmates?

What if a woman is handcuffed to a bed in a secluded cabin by her husband, who then dies leaving her stranded?

From these questions we get the novels Misery, Carrie, and Gerald’s Game.

These “what if” situations stem from King’s own dislike from plotting his writing before he begins to work on it. Now, I already knew that Stephen King was a genius with a super-human brain…but when I read this section of his On Writing book, I wanted to drop everything and kiss his feet.

I’ve never taken traditional writing classes, but I know in the screenwriting classes I have taken, it was drilled into our heads to plot out every single solitary detail of our work before we dove into writing it. This practice always made my brain feel like it was shrinking until it was completely void of thought. I never could plan out things worth a hoot, and in fact it seemed to stifle any work that followed.

Maybe it’s a flaw, I am not sure, but I like to just sit down and write whatever comes out and then go back later to try to work out plot holes or anything that may not make sense from beginning to end.  I have tried to plot out a story before, and a few days into it I was feeling strangled by the whole thing, desperately trying to actually make it work but never really feeling satisfied with what I was typing.

Of course, everyone has their own method to their madness. What works for you may not work for me, and what works for me may not work for you. I do know that I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking the “what if” questions, whether my Memaw wants to listen to them or not. Who knows, my next “what if” may trigger something great!

What about you? Have you ever taken a “what if?” question and developed a story from it? Do you prefer planning everything out in advance, or just jumping in?


29 Comments to “What if?”

  1. I’m a what if? girl myself and sometimes a why? or why not? thrown in for good measure. Great post!

  2. I’m definitely a pantser like you, my inspiration only comes when I start writing. If I try and plan it all out then I just find myself staring blankly at the paper, or screen.

    However, I’m currently working on a non-fiction book, and with that If found that I actually did have to plan it out. I started off by just launching into it and writing the introduction, but after that I very quickly realised that I absolutely had to decide on what the subject of each chapter would be, and what sub-topics would fall into each one, before going any further.

    My son is a major “What if” asker, but it’s all about science with him, so I think it’s scientific/experimental mind working rather than his storytelling mind.

    • Oh awesome! I can see needing to plan things a bit more with a non-fiction. I don’t have any experience with non-fiction but I can definitely see myself trying to plan things in advance with that as well.

    • Whoops I forgot to log into my secret Limebird identity!! eeeek!

  3. I’m trying to understand why it has to be one or the other. I have written a story that arose from a “what if?” question, but I planned the whole story before I started writing.

    • It certainly doesn’t have to be one or the other. Like you said, you got a what if question and then planned it out instead of just jumping into it 🙂 Whatever works for you to get your ideas out 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

    • Whoops that comment was supposed to be under my limebird profile and I forgot I wasn’t logged into it :-O Just wanted to let you know that it was me commenting and not someone random.

  4. I don’t work off of ‘what if’ questions, but…! I do work from spontaneity, and never from an outline. Only with one novel waiting in the queue did I have any inkling up front what I wished the story to be, the writing began, and… found the partner of the initial protagonist to be far more compelling and wished to explore her, so the idea became a subordinate theme to one which fashioned out of nowhere.

    Sue Monk Kidd and Susanne Pari have both mentioned they write from an unknown place without outlines. When I write a new story, whether novel or a short, something inside directs a first sentence, and a universe explodes into being. I don’t know what comes next, it just flows, as if I’m just a conduit, and this is one of the wonderful things about writing for me – the sense of discovery as I write, a story revealing itself to me as if I am a reader and not writer.

    Other writers need an outline, and I get that. It’s all in how we work and what we feel comfortable doing as we write.

    • Thanks for your comments 😀 You are so right, whatever is the method to your madness is what should work! That’s why I always go so frustrated in classes when they required an outline handed in before. Once I made it up and then pretty much scrapped it when I started actually writing my script, and once it wasn’t due until the script itself was due so I wrote it afterwards…eek!

      I think it’s really apparent that either method could work when you look at Stephen King (again… lol) and J.K. Rowling. King dives in and goes with the flow, Rowling plans out an entire universe and sub-plots for sub-plots and back stories that will never see the light of day – and both authors, in my opinion at least, write masterpieces.

  5. “What if” is one of the big tools I use to feel out stories and build them, but at the same time, I have to outline, or I don’t get anything done. I don’t think you have to do one or the other. But my whole feeling on writing process is do what works for you. If what you’re doing gets you to the end with a reasonably good story, then keep doing it. If it isn’t, try something else. It’s all about getting results to me. I think the problem is when people try to force themselves into a process that doesn’t work for them. But learning to do what works for you and throw out the rest is also part of the process of becoming yourself as a writer, in my experience.

    • Thanks for the comment Julie 🙂 I agree, when someone is forced into a writing process that doesn’t work for them – it can get ugly!

  6. I start with a premise, but I don’t know that I think of it in terms of “what if?” It’s more like a concept. It COULD be couched in terms of “what if?” What if an off-world scientific expedition brought back a giant intelligent termite and someone had to figure out how to communicate with it? What if a sequence of Earth myths were reenacted on an alien planet by a race of intelligent termites? But my actual thought processes were – gee, termites could evolve into a wonderful intelligent lifeform with a fascinating culture! How would they speak? How would we communicate with them?
    And as for planning things out – I have that major weakness I’ve mentioned before. I always have a beginning and I know exactly how I’m going to end, but I don’t know what I’m going to do in the middle to get from here to there, so I start improvising. That can be disastrous! But I should say, with the “Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head” series, that didn’t happen!

    • Hi Lorinda! Thanks for the comment! I bet finding your middle is extremely fun…even if it turns out disastrous 🙂

  7. Limebirdlaura’s momma here-I love Nelle’s comment about how the process of creating is a very personal thing. All of our brains are wired differently and we all have our own approach to creativity. Do what works for you….good job ms. laura!!!

    • Hehe Hi momma 🙂 I don’t know if anyone wants to go into how my brain is wired! 😛 I blame my upbringing 😉

  8. I love to play What If?. With my fiction whether I take the what if and run or plot depends on the day. I almost always start with a general premise and the end in mind, write a bit with nothing more, then sit down and get major plot points on paper. Every once in a while, though, the story will grab me and I’ll write in a frenzy until I reach the end–or until I reach a wall and realize I wrote myself into a corner. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting you mention writing yourself into a corner, that’s sort of how I felt when I had outlined and planned everything with my story, that I was just hitting a brick wall and couldn’t go anywhere else with it. Maybe it was just a fluke, maybe that story wouldn’t have worked no matter what.

  9. I usually hear a voice that starts talking about another character or about something that has just happened to “the voice.” Then i have to wait to see what develops. Not the fastest way to write, but it works for me. It’s a bit different with my nonfiction. I have the “characters.” I have interviews. And then I find the story. I was talking this past weekend to a friend who’s a filmmaker. He just finished shooting a documentary he’s making about the AIDS ride fundraiser in California. I identified with him completely when he said that he hoped to find a story in all those hours of footage.

    • Thanks for your comment Jilanne! I like what your friend has said, about finding a story in his footage. I am majoring in film editing in college and I love doing that myself, sometimes just digging into random footage that doesn’t go together to try to find a story. I like the idea of hearing a voice and going from there as well. 😀

  10. Definite pantser here, but I do try to think about where things are going. Nothing that approaches true outlining, though. I don’t think my Muse is the outlining type. She likes to drop an idea in my head when I least expect it. Then she’s off for a mojito on a beach somewhere until it’s time to check up on how I’m doing. 🙂

    • I’m loving the term “pantser”! That defines me in most aspects of my life. Need to be somewhere at 3? I’ll worry about it about 5 min before I have to leave. Drives my husband batty. I like your Muse! maybe someday she’ll invite you along for the mojito!

  11. Just right in. Don’t even put a toe in to test the water.

  12. That was one of the passages in On Writing that I read which had me re-thinking my process. I forget what he said about plot, but I think he gave it a name or called it ‘dirty’ or something like that, lol. This made me think about what other writers have to say about plot–most writers are very firm on plotting.

    The first time I pantsed something I ended up with a 60,000 word novel (no joke). The first time I did NaNo, I pantsed it, and was able to get beginning, mid, and end in 50,000 words. I think the 30-day limit helped me from going too crazy.

    I think for my next novel I would pants it, but I would have to set a limit so I don’t lose myself in the book. The what-if question is always a good one to ask, and I can see how it would encourage original and unique premises.

  13. I do this when I come to a scene that isn’t moving. I ask what if questions. What if she did this, what if he said that, what if..what if… I gets me out of a lot of corners I’ve parked myself in.

  14. I write first and fill in the holes later, like you. What’s fun about plotting? You definitely need to go back and add structure, but the best part about writing is that first draft when you just get to write away.

  15. ‘What if…?’ The only question out there as powerful as the single word ‘why?’
    🙂 great post.

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