As creators who take great pride in their craft, all artists constantly need to address questions about their work, and writers are no exception. “What should I write about?” “Who is my target audience?” “How can I make this particular plot work?” At every turn, we need to be aware of potential issues and solutions so that we can produce pieces of the highest possible quality. True, this isn’t always fun; some questions seem to limit our work, while others seem to pull the brakes on it altogether. Yet there is one question that every writer should ask but that many likely take for granted: the infamous “What if?”

Why ask “What if?”

Calvin - What If God...

From Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

I have memories from my childhood of my mom getting annoyed by my sister constantly asking “What if this?” or “What if that?” But while all the question ever did in her case was stress everyone out, I later came to realize how useful it could be for my fiction. We discouraged my sister from asking “what if” certain things were to happen in our real lives, and with good reason: it’s a terrifying question! But when I asked the same of my characters’ imaginary lives, countless possibilities emerged.

What if something unexpected were to happen right here?” Then the characters could react in a way that would help establish important development points. “What if this character were to say something to that one?” Then the latter’s response could serve as a Chekhov’s Gun, concealing a clue that could become important later on in the story. “What if they were to go through the forest instead of around it?” Then they could run into a different set of obstacles that might make the story more interesting. You never know what sorts of ideas will pop up until you dare to search for them!

The Start of Something New

There's a reason this book is titled "What If?"!

There’s a reason this writing exercise book is titled “What If?”!

“What if?” isn’t limited to stories that are already in progress. Sometimes asking the question can be the beginning of a new work altogether. For example, this was the case of one of my most popular stories: a video game fanfiction I wrote when I was 19, titled Generation Beta. The idea for this story came to me one day when I asked myself, “What if my favorite video game characters were to have a future in which they got married and had children?” That started me thinking about said children: what they would look like, what their names would be, how their personalities would develop as they grew older, etc. The next thing I knew, I had created an entire cast of second-generation characters and a handful of potential plots, so I decided to take my brainstorming a step further and write a whole story around them, which I eventually published online. To this day, Generation Beta remains my most read work of fiction, drawing in hundreds of views every month, and it’s all thanks to one simple question I asked in a moment of idle thinking.

If you’re looking for your next big idea, don’t underestimate the power of “What if?” One of your simplest answers to the question may just be the key to a successful new story!

No Obligations, No Worries

The great advantage of the question “What if?” is that it doesn’t tie you to one specific idea, because all you’re really doing is brainstorming without actually committing to anything yet. If a particular line of thought doesn’t feel right, you can discard it as if it never existed – which it technically didn’t anyway – and just go straight back to where you started to try a different path instead. By repeating this process, you can run with as many ideas as you like until you finally find the one that clicks. Handy, right?

So the next time you feel stuck, take a break and ask yourself “What if?” You never know where your trains of thought will take you, but you can be sure it’ll be well worth the ride! Good luck!

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