How Do You Wield the Powerful “What If?” Question?

Young Sailor 2

Part of a look at Larry Brooks’ book “Story Engineering”

The “What if”? Question… A top weapon of an author, huh? I kept looking at it and trying to rephrase it.

I mean, if you are asking a question which will take your story greater, wouldn’t you use something like “What should happen next?” or “Maybe if I…?”

So far, it does not appear to be “among the most powerful tools in all the storytelling process”.

As I wrestled with changing or improving the “What if?” question, my mind began to open. Y’see, when you are asking “What if?” you are not just asking “What if? you are asking “What if?” with certain answers in mind. You have goals for your storytelling and as you think about these goals, you ask “What if?”

One of your goals is to transform a simple idea into a concept. The simple idea rarely has the power to carry a story. But when built into a concept, if the concept is a “high” one; that is, has the proper ingredients, it becomes the platform on which the story unfolds.

Okay, I am new to all this too. I am struggling, but I can see the potential and I want to stick with the idea.

Let’s say the story idea is to have people engineered to satisfy the needs of others. What is the purpose of that? Well, you are thinking Sci-Fi, so what if the one who wishes to have needs met is a farmer on a farming planet? What if he is alone and the owners of the property want him to be focused on his job? What if robots are not considered personal enough, so the company scientists put together embryos in test tubes? As the fetuses develop, most of the main brain is removed so that the resultant being has only the parts of brain needed for use of movement and enough of the main brain to only think on the lowest levels, perhaps just beyond survival needs. What if after such an engineered woman is sent to take care of the man’s daily home chores and to give him a sort of female companionship, that the brain parts which are left begin to take on the powers that a complete brain would have? What if the woman’s bio-mechanics adapted and the “slave” becomes an equal?

Now, all kinds of things are opening in the original idea and it became (or is becoming) a strong concept of your mind. You are conceptionalizing a story line.

So, as you are asking the “What if? question, you have other questions in mind that act as a backdrop. It goes like this.

What can I do to make my story more compelling? What if I add suspense to the scene where Jack is about to kiss Jill for the first time? How can I do that? What if her father steps out on the porch just as they are yielding to the urge? What if he is intimidating to Jack and doesn’t yet feel comfortable with Jack as a possible suitor? But maybe that line of thought is stale and typical.
So, let’s check another avenue. What could come up at such a delicate time which would thwart the magic moment? It would have to be something that would quickly change or replace the lovers’ present feelings. Maybe a frightful event…

Okay, what if a bear appeared out of the woods? Yes, go from a tender scene to an escape scene or a, uhg, horror scene.

What if the woman in the love scene suddenly realizes that she is about to go too far because she has some problem that must be dealt with before she can allow a man to fall in love with her? What can that be? What if it was a terminal illness…? No, that’s been done.

What if she is of a religious faith in which her father had promised her to his business partner’s son while she was just a child?

The “What if’s” keep moving in your direction or goal of making your story concept more compelling, more new, more original, and more wowing, more unique, more bang for your readers.

The “What if” question can be used to open other doors in your story as mentioned in my previous blog entry. One of these doors is to give your story more detail and make it deeper and richer.
Let’s say you decided to go with the bear in your “first kiss” story above. Now you shift your thoughts and focus from making the concept stronger to creating stronger details. Now, you find yourself asking, What if the bear is a huge grizzly bear? What if it roars with an ear shattering blast of sound? Like the T Rex in “Jurassic Park”? What if it has features that would frighten you if it suddenly appeared near you? A thought goes on in your head as you phrase these “What if?” questions. How can I get the most out of this bear? What about other background obstacles or possible aids which can be added to the picture? What if they are very near the entrance of a barn? Being in a rickety barn with a grizzly bear trying to tear its way in could be compelling…

Let’s see if we can open the next door. Larry says the “What if? question can be used to add to the nuances of character and theme.
Although we will get to theme later, what if your story’s theme is date rape? What if being trapped in the barn with a grizzly bear outside leads to the two characters being trapped in a hay loft for safety? What if the closeness of the moment and the helplessness of the situation lead to the man attempting to take unfair advantage of the woman against her will? Ooops, I just made a villain out of a character I was beginning to like. Remember when Larry said you would reach forks in your story in which you must
choose to go one way or the other? This looks suspiciously like such a fork.

I believe we not only touched the theme of the story, but also added to the nuances of one of the characters if we take that fork. In one fell swoop, we changed the man from someone we may have liked to someone we now do not trust.

How do you bring something new to this concept of these lovers’ first kiss? You move deeper into the conceptual realm with a view to make the story less predictable. Use a What if? question to remove all second guessing. What would really surprise my readers? What if Jill slaps Jack a stinging blow and suddenly he awakes to the fact that he is about to take advantage of her? What if his shame and hurt suddenly makes him withdraw and he runs out of the barn into the cross hairs of the angry bear? What if Jill begins to confuse her close call with remorse that she may have caused Jack to get hurt or killed?

Would the reader be expecting this turn of events to take place? Larry talked about not using deception or trickery on your readers. He also warned about manipulating your readers. Your story must have credibility, meaning, and value. The characters are going through a journey. You have to ask yourself if a way you choose to go is removing expectations or is it using a gimmick. In the above case, to me it looks like good stuff and not at all gimmicky.
Perhaps the journey for Jack is to realize that he needs to take control of his actions and not let his feeling take over his better judgment. Perhaps Jill realizes that she is able to make a stand against unwanted advances; that she has the inner strength to do all she can to protect herself. That does not excuse Jack’s actions, but right now we are focusing in on Jill’s journey.

Okay, you have the “perhaps” thoughts, now you can use the “What if?” questions to propose various actions.

Good luck to you as you ponder through this. I am going to give this new tool a workout. My ears always perk up when someone suggests a most powerful new tool! Will this move me to a higher writing level? Y’know, make my “capacity for wisdom” pot grow to the next level…

We shall see!


6 thoughts on “How Do You Wield the Powerful “What If?” Question?

    • Hi, MW (Magic Writer)
      I am glad you enjoyed this. I am even more glad that the examples displayed the power to my reader(s). Sometimes my illustrations take a life of their own and my Irish roots from Mum’s side delights in that while my Dad’s English (his ancestors were from England) roots cringes at that!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A year ago while I’m attending my screenwriting lessons at BootCamp, they also have a topic like this. At first, I refused to do it, because I want to stick to my idea, but eventually, I succumbed to it.

    It was great and it truly opened me to more possibilities and I was also able to find out what I’m willing to try for my story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, QC
      It seems that writers these days are really looking at Screen and Play writing because Movies and Plays show scenes. With “show not tell” being a prominent must do and with the concept of a novel as a number of scenes tied together with some narrative or summary “tell”, a knowledge of screenwriting has become very enticing to me. I learned of the “What if” question from a writing guru who championed the ideas of screenwriting in his “How to Write a Novel” book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s true, but in my case, I actually want to write a script for a film, so I studied it.

        I realized along the way that learning screenwriting, helped me a lot in writing my novel.

        Before I dreamed of becoming a writer, I started reading poems and plays like Romeo and Juliet, and more.

        It was great, and I love it. I was 12 back then, and now it’s 16 years later.

        Someday I’ll make that happen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • And, as it happens, I want to see some of the unfolding and then be in line to see your completed work!

        I can just imagine what a novel written by someone who loves plays like Romeo and Juliet will be like!

        Do it! 🙂


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