October 28th, 2020

Tips to Up Your "What If" Game

by Eldred "Bob" Bird

With NaNoWriMo just a few days away, many WITS readers are probably prepping for the mad dash—plotting, building character profiles, setting word count goals, and stocking up on the caffeine delivery system of their choice. Others (like me) are beginning to panic as they stare at a blank page and hope beyond hope that a brilliant idea will descend from the heavens like a gift from God and drop into their addled brian in time for the November starting gun. Unfortunately, inspiration rarely work that way.

It’s times like these I like to play what I call “The What If Game.” It’s a game of possibilities conjured up by looking at the world through the warped lens of what is best described as a funhouse mirror.

Rules of the What If Game

Okay, there really are no rules, but the basic idea is to take the world around you and turn it on its ear. Everyday objects and situations can make great fodder for stories when we twist them, turn them over, look at them from a different angle and ask, “What if?” Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  • Look around you and pick an everyday object. How is it normally used? What if it was used in a different way—the crazier the better. Who would use it for another purpose? Would they use it for good or evil? Maybe the object is the focus of a mystery (i.e.: The Maltese Falcon). Could the object be a catalyst for tension and disruption (i.e.: The Gods Must Be Crazy)?
  • Pick two people you know who are total opposites—I like to look at my old high school yearbooks for this one—and put them in a scene together. What if they were given a challenge to overcome that required them to work together? Up the ante by making things as awkward as possible. Stirring in a little unrequited love is always a good way spice thing up.
  • Think of someplace you would never want to end up. It can be a real location or a fantasy world. What if you were transported there, stranded and left for dead?  How did you get there? Who sent you? How do you survive? How do you escape?
  • Try to recall a situation you or a friend found themselves in that ended without issue. What if something had gone terribly wrong? What would have happened to them? Who would be responsible? How would they fix the situation?

I could write a whole book of these prompts, but you get the idea. You just have to look at the world through what the comedian Gallagher (yes, the watermelon smashing guy) called “New Eyes,” something he learned by watching his three-year-old daughter observe her surroundings. According to him, she called a restaurant “the dinner store.” Makes total since, right? Children don’t have preconceived notions formed by years of experience. As creatives, we have the ability turn off our adult expectations and see things through the eyes of a child. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from the general population.

Execute Your What If

Now that you have the seed of an idea, go ahead and write the scene. It doesn’t matter how long or short the piece is, just dump your brain on the page. The scene doesn’t even have to make since or be complete. You’re just developing an idea at this stage of the game, so don’t worry about grammar, sentence structure, or full-blown descriptions.

You might have to do this for several of your what-ifs before something sparks and catches fire, so be patient with yourself. No one ever said being a writer was going to be fast and easy.

And Then What Happens

Once you have something on the page, you have a foundation to build on. Read your new scene, tweak it if you like, then ask, “…and then what happens?” What’s the next step on the journey? Does the first scene point you down a specific path? Maybe there are several ways it can go. Explore all the possibilities. One is bound to click and send you in the right direction. If you hit a dead end, back up and try again.

At the conclusion of each scene you write, ask, “…and then what happens” again and repeat the process. Keep stitching the scenes together until you have the bones of a complete story. If you think of something that might happen down the road somewhere, go ahead and write it when the inspiration hits. There’s no law that says you must write in chronological order. The future scene might guide your process and give you a target to aim for.

You should also consider that maybe your story starts before that foundation scene. Instead of asking what happens next you might want to turn it around and ask what happened that led to the current situation. There’s no guarantee the first scene (or chapter) you wrote was the best place to start the story.

An Example of a Successful What If Game

A fellow author was talking to me about the stem cell treatment she received for her back. I’d also heard about some the research being done with stem cells to repair spinal cord damage in people who were paralyzed due to back injuries. I wondered if there might be other application for the treatment. Here’s where the What If game led me.

Stem cells can repair nerve damage in the spinal cord, so what if you applied the same treatment to other nerves groups in the body? I thought about where else nerve damage might happen—hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose. Nose! What if the olfactory nerve was damaged? What if you couldn’t smell anything? Smell is also a big component of taste as well.

Okay, now I have a character with a damaged nose and a loss of smell… and then what happens? The person seeks out an experimental treatment involving stem cell therapy… and then what happens? The treatment works at first, but then something goes wrong—the new nerve cells start growing out of control… and then what happens?

You get the idea, right? I kept this up until I had the framework for my pulp short The Smell of Fear, a story about a veteran police detective, injured on the job, who tries an experimental treatment to regain his sense of smell. The story went in several different directions before I settled on the final details, but in the end, I was able to spin a compelling tale by starting with one simple question—What if…

A Final Thought

Occasionally, we all get those dry spells in our creativity. The What If game is just one way to get things flowing again, but there are a multitude of other resources on the web to give us a kick-start. Here are a few favorites:

  • The Random Logline Generator is a fun (and sometimes hilarious) tool. Keep hitting the button until something catches you eye.
  • You don’t need a refrigerator to play with the words from Magnetic Poetry. Try their free Online version.
  • Need help with characters? Try Character Generator. While you’re there, check out the name and plot generators as well.
  • The Character Builder at OneStop for Writers is also an invaluable resource. Build your character's backstory, motivations, behaviors, traumas, physical characteristics, and more. Plus, you can save the information for future books if you're writing a series.
  • Reedsy is great resource for all things writerly. Try their Plot Generator on for size.

A quick search of the web will yield thousands of other sites to help get your creative juices flowing.

So, what works best for you? Do you have any favorite exercises or resources? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

13 responses to “Tips to Up Your "What If" Game”

  1. LauraDrake says:

    Clever premise for your book, Eldred, and the perfect title!
    Great way to get the creative juices flowing!
    I always start with characters - I know one...but to create the other, I try to think of the personality and backstory that would be the antitheses - and that becomes my other main character. Guarantees tension and conflict through the whole book!

    Good luck with NaNo everyone!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Laura. It was a fun angle to write from. Starting with a character is a great way get the ball rolling. That's how my James McCarthy series got started. Now rather than the story dictating the type of characters I need to create, the characters dictate the story in need to write. I end up playing the "What If" game with my characters and they will tell me if I'm on the right path or not.

    • Laura, your game-of-opposites approach to main-character development is genius. Going to apply it to my WIP. How can the pairs' goals and gifts be opposite yet complementary? How can their weaknesses and strengths work together? It's a great way to get to the why-do-they-need-each-other backbone of their journey.

      Eldred, thanks for the provocative post. Just put a new sticky note on my monitor that says "...and then what?"

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Like Laura, I start with characters for my romantic suspense books, which means, per genre convention, that they have to have conflicting goals, histories, motivations, etc. For example, the hero is a covert ops field agent, and in an op gone bad, a young child died in his arms (off the page, of course!). The heroine is a single mother with a child the same age. In another, the hero is a cop who's defined by his job. Everything is black and white. He never gets involved with victims. Until this one. How far will he go when he knows who the bad guy trying to ruin his heroine is, but the bad guy hasn't broken any laws?

    Then, it's just a matter of piling everything on.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Great examples, Terry. Genre can really drive where you start and where you go with the story. Genre readers have certain expectations that must be met. Whether you're writing romance, sci-fi, fantasy or mystery, it pays to know your audience and the beats you have to hit to be successful.

  3. Ellen says:

    Great post!

    Back when I taught Pre-K in a progressive school my students dictated stories that I wrote down for them.

    Whenever they were stuck, we played the "And then what happened" game. That never failed, especially when asked with an excited voice. Their stories were always character driven. For added fun they had to decide which of their classmates would be in the story. The students performed their plays the same day.

    I found a useful resource: http://www.mitchmoldofsky.com/LoglinePage0.htm

    Along with the logline generator there are a few other useful tools, such as a synopsis engine and character charts.

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    Great tool, Ellen. I love when I hear stories about encouraging creativity and helping children stretch their imaginations!

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    The characters almost always just come to me - then I have to What If the plot to know where to take them. So yes, it is almost always a character-driven What If for me. I usually do the What If AFTER my initial rush of "knowing" has run dry. Sometimes it screws me up to wait, but usually a story is better if I let it just happen before I go messing with things.

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    hmm... my answer timed out and disappeared.

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