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!


Forbidden Love

One Poem from “Poems of Romance”

From my Poetry Web Site

Almost good

Like a dream she pranced through the smoky haze.
Her light blond hair haloed her lovely face.
Her pale blue eyes met my embarrassed gaze
For a moment before she set her pace.

The “Unicorn” song filled the bar-room air
As she danced atop the stage and catwalk.
Shedding her clothes, she modeled herself bare –
Two tassels, a G-string, and the crowd’s gawk.

She smiled as she moved, but her eyes touched me.
Their half-dressed sadness glimmered through the dark.
Did her life or the song sigh this soft plea?
Was she a Unicorn who missed the Ark?

Questioning riddles – how they tease the mind.
Pity or ploy wrests money from the kind.

She stalked her pursuers and snatched my heart
As she pantomimed those scenes of her choice.
Her tight abs plied the undulating art.
Lip-syncing lines, she swiped the story’s voice.

I sat on the stool that I picked each night
For I could not get enough of her show.
I fought the inner war of wrong and right
But my wayward heart compelled me to go.

Our ship docked in New Orleans for a week
And I was barely old enough to drink.
I braved Bourbon Street and breathed its mystique.
Lonely cravings fogged my power to think.

Even a sailor, daring, bold, and free,
Should know illusions from reality.

Two worlds met and their eclipsed shadows kissed.
Each life was full and had reason and rhyme.
Burlesque, by high society dismissed,
Sustained a sailor through a lonely time.

Fantasy fought reality, such strife.
I could not have her, I could only gaze.
I had just a faint peek into her life,
Had she noticed me through the smoky haze?

Though I could see every inch of her,
I saw nothing of her and her veiled world.
“I love you so! Could you love this sailor?
I treasure your smiles as you dance and twirl.”

“I daydream that you dance for me alone.
You hurl my feelings like a wild cyclone.”

I looked mostly into her eyes and face.
I did not rape her with my captured mind.
Though she displayed herself with all her grace,
I tried hard to show her my heart was kind.

Intrigued by a nude female’s fluid motion,
I savored each sexy curve’s ebb and flow.
Slipping, I gave her my full devotion,
My eyes slipped from her face and feasted below.

I would catch myself and feel my blush burn.
I fought temptation and cursed my weak will,
Then felt my strong inner resolve return.
She must have known and calmed me through her skill.

I came to see a nude dancer, for shame.
She amply fulfilled the reason I came.

Oh, hypocrisy, how I judged her so,
For I thought to take her from her dark life.
Yet I came to see her nude dancing show.
Would ‘saving her’ be a cause to take a wife?

Did she live in a fake fantasy world?
Did she have to do this public display?
She was a highly skilled bar dancing girl
Who hid her shame in her innocent way.

I think we both lived in pretend worlds then;
Each taken while so young and innocent.
Living where opportunities were thin
The Navy and burlesque seemed heaven sent.

Speak of those times past, full of quiet goodbyes.
When I think of her, tears still dim my eyes.


Hi, I am William

A bit about me.  I grew up in the low land swampy woods of North Central Florida, near the town of Cross Creek, Florida, to be more exact.  My Dad was sort of a tenant farmer who worked one of my Uncle Harry’s farms.  On the 240 acres carved out of the swampy woods, we enjoyed about 8 fields (one of which our house sat in the middle of), in which we usually had a herd of about 100 or so cattle, raised for beef, three to four horses which we rode, and one to three milk cows.  As animals rotated from “our” farm to Uncle Harry’s farm, the numbers changed, the numbers shown being a range or maximum number.  In the field that our house sat in, we also had around five thousand laying hens and ran a full commercial egg selling business.

When I completed my tenth grade of school, Uncle Harry had to sell the farm and we moved into a Jim Walter built home in Fort McCoy, Florida.  I planned to be a pastor upon completion of High School, but the Viet Nam “war” was raging and I joined the military to do my fair share at age 17.  I was going to try to get into the Marines, but a fellow high school graduate convinced me to join the Navy.  Nearly 24 years later, I retired as a Navy Master Chief Sonar Technician.

When I was in college earning my BA degree, I learned to keep a journal.  I found this a marvelous way to put down ideas and important events, at that time about my growth in the disciplines I studied, and later, about my goals in life.

One of my main goals at this time is to write my novel. I am writing a novel about a knight, a warrior maiden, and a mind reading, fire breathing, flying, graceful dragon.  It is set in the South Western toe of England, just below Wales, and at the time right after the last Roman legion left and after King Arthur reined.

For nearly ten years, I have kept a writing blog/journal at a writing site I just left.  This is my new blog/journal site.

Some of the main things that I wrote in my blog were:  My daily writing events, breakthroughs or things which kept me from writing at the time; the results of my studies on writing, which often was a sort of critique or what I had learned from various writing books; and some of my writing as my mind developed new poetry or prose.  Well, I also digressed at times and spoke on events in life which could lead to story ideas or emotions and such which are feelings that writing can spring from.

In this blog, I intend to bring over some of my past blog entries as well as post new and fresh material.  Old entries are still platforms to build new entries from.  I have learned a lot and I want to put that knowledge here rather than in a storage space to waste away.  I have plenty of time to juggle and work on that.  I do not want to hoard old data and I never want the old to get in the way of my forward progress.

I really don’t know what I have gotten into yet and I know this is all experimental.  Still, I am hoping that this is it, my final blogging ground.  Will I be read or will I be just writing to myself?  I don’t know yet, but I shall continue my blog.  Worse case scenario is that this doesn’t work as planned and that I have to move on.

But, I will not borrow trouble from tomorrow that may not materialize.  So, I boldly go forth and write where I have never written before!