What Would Happen If…

by limebirdvanessa

When we are writing our novels, be it for NaNoWriMo or not, we can all reach phases in the writing where we become stuck. We either feel completely blocked, with no inspiration at all, or we are able to write, but feel it is lifeless and dull. There are many tips out there for gently reigniting our inspiration, but sometimes what we actually need to do is experiment with something drastic. Here are a few ideas…

1) Without any warning, make something dramatic happen – From nowhere, a space ship crash lands, slap bang in the middle of your story. Or maybe the building across the road suddenly explodes. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit for now, that’s what editing is for. How do your characters react to, and deal with, this sudden catastrophe? As you start writing about this event and the aftermath, an interesting thing will happen. Not only will you almost certainly have fun writing it, but you will very likely learn new things about your characters. Perhaps one of your characters will take charge of the situation and you will see that they have leadership qualities that you weren’t aware of; does this give you an idea for another situation in your story where their leadership qualities could be used? Or maybe one of your characters is so traumatised by the event, it reveals a flashback to a past trauma they experienced which adds another layer to their personality that can be used later on. In real life, when people are thrown into extreme situations, they often reveal sides to their personalities that are otherwise hidden, so throw your characters into extreme situations, and see what they reveal.

2) Bring in something from another genre or time period – Similar to above, but this time it isn’t something huge or dramatic, but it is something that is definitely out of place in the story. You’re writing a mainstream fiction story set in New York city, a couple of your characters are strolling through Central Park when they stumble across a fairy nest. Or you’re writing a historical drama, and one of the characters comes across an iPad. As with the first point, by writing about how your characters react to what they have found, you will almost certainly learn something new about them, which may in turn inspire you to add new elements to your story.

3) Kill off your protagonist –Β  He’s crossing the road, a bus runs over him. Gone. In an instant. What kind of hole does he leave? Can the story carry on without him? Are the other characters interesting and strong enough to take the story forward? Of course you’re not likely to want to really kill off your protagonist, but thinking about what would happen if you did can help you gain a different perspective on your story. In the real world, everything doesn’t hang off one person. Imagining your story without your protagonist may help you realise that other characters and aspects of your story need to be strengthened to make them worthy in their own right, and not just as props for your protagonist. It can help ensure your story is well balanced if you can clearly identify which aspects are dependent on the protagonist and which are not.

It can feel like a waste of time to bring elements into your story which you know you are unlikely to keep, but any time spent on stimulating ideas, and getting to know your characters better, is actually time very well spent.

Do you ever try bringing things into your story that you know probably won’t stay, just to see what happens?


21 Responses to “What Would Happen If…”

  1. I love the third one. I wonder how many times that’s been used! Almost every action story has a scene called “the fall”, where the hero somehow loses his powers, or is seriously hurt or is captured or something. It makes me wonder how many of these scenes spawned from frustration on the part of the author πŸ™‚

  2. Hmm. I rarely use these techniques “just to see what happens.” Usually, I’m working from at least a rough outline of where the plot needs to go. However, I did once add several chapters to a story because the heroine’s father made an appearance. What was supposed to be just an argument turned into a honor-bound duel between daddy and daughter, for the hand of the man she loved! That was a fun ride, and totally unexpected. πŸ™‚

    Killing protagonists is sadly underrated, especially in television. There are many heroes’ and heroines’ stories that would have had so much more impact if the writer had just decided to let them die. (Personally, I already know what happens when my protagonist dies. It’s one of the first things I wrote for him.)

    Great post, Vanessa. I’m sensing that we’ll see more of these thought-provoking “What if…?” posts, now that NaNo is almost over, and everyone is willing to share their experiences. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Mayumi. It’s not a technique I’ve used much either, but it kind of evolved into an idea while I was doing NaNo. I think you’re right, there may be more “What if…?” posts.

      I’m struggling a bit with the last few thousand words of my NaNo, I’ve already taken my own advice and tried out one of the above things, I think it may be time for some more of those to get me through to the end!

  3. What a great question! I like to think the plot through before I do much writing, but part of that process is asking “what if” and adding plot twists, characters, etc. I might even jot them down and think them on in my notebook. But when I sit down to write, I usually have things mapped out πŸ™‚

    • I’m pretty much a pantser, but I did do a bit of planning for NaNo. However, it wasn’t enough planning and I’ve struggled at times to find interesting enough things to write about in between my planned plot points! The “what if” questions are always good though, whether during planning or pantsing!

  4. Vanessa, All good advice! I probably don’t try this nearly as often as I should. I think if you can gain some perspective on your story, it can only help. I will keep those things in mind… especially the fairy nest in Central Park. ; )

  5. Great advice, Vanessa. I have never tried any of these techniques, and that is one of my biggest flaws in writing. I don’t take enough risks with the story. I hate seeing my characters in trouble, and I pull them out before I should. Through much practice and tough love (on myself) I have gotten better at putting my stories through the wringer. I like your suggestions, and I will try them as I continue with my NaNo novel.

    • Thanks Kate. I was just saying to Anne, up there ^^^ that it makes you feel quite brave and powerful if you take a risk like this. I actually tried the random explosion of a building in my NaNo one a couple of days ago and it was quite exciting to do because it wasn’t part of my planned story at all. Of course because my NaNo story is a mafia story, it could actually fit, depending on what else I write around it, so it’s not a completely wild and crazy addition! Maybe I’ll try something wild and crazy in my last few thousand words.

  6. Vanessa, afraid that wouldn’t work for me! It falls into the category of improvisation, and my problem is, as soon as I invent a situation or a character, it becomes set in stone, with a life of its own, and it refuses to die. As soon as I give a character a name, it becomes real; it wants to develop a whole life story, a set of conflicts that need to be resolved and integrated into the basic plots, etc., etc. Pretty soon the story has balooned into a monster for length.
    One time in my WIP, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, I sent the Captain on an airplane and, since he is a valuable man, he was assigned a body guard. I named this body guard. He was Turkish. He was described. He coversed with the Captain during the flight. He was becoming very interesting. And then I thought, what am I doing? I don’t need this character. All I need to say is, The Captain boarded a plane and disembarked in Athens (or wherever) a few hours later. So I relentlessly cut out my Turkish bodyguard, who threatened to become an ongoing character in the saga. But I couldn’t resist keeping the pieces I cut out. BTW, the body guard’s name was Sgt. Memet Pancun (may he rest in peace!)

    • Don’t be afraid! πŸ˜‰ With any of these bits of advice or suggestions, it’s all about taking what works for us isn’t it. Everybody works in a different way and what might seem like a great idea to one person could seem completely pointless to another. I think my suggestions here might work better for pantsers than planners, us pantsers are, by definition, used to just making it up as we go along, and these suggestions are just a different way of doing that. I’m a little sad you cut out your Turkish bodyguard though, if you don’t want him anymore, I’m sure I could find a home for him…

  7. I haven’t tried anything like that, but it sounds like a good, helpful exercise! Like Kate mentioned, I’ve tended not to put my characters into enough difficult situationsβ€”something I’m trying to fix. These ideas sound like a good way to practice!

  8. Kill of your protagonist, eh? Did you go see Anthony Hopkins’ “Hitchcock” recently?

  9. Ah these are fun ideas! I’ve never tried doing anything so dramatic as to see what would happen if protag wasn’t there anymore but that could be a really interesting character study! Also….I really want to read a historical drama featuring an iPad now πŸ˜€


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