Six impossible things

What if…

One of the really common recommendations for generating plot ideas is “Ask yourself What if… about something.” It’s the foundation of Alternate History stories, from changes that everyone recognizes – What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Kennedy had survived being shot? – to altering details that only a historian would know about, but which can have a huge impact on the way things play out (the messenger who goes astray or doesn’t, resulting in reinforcements arriving in time or not, the diplomat who recovered from smallpox instead of dying before a crucial treaty could be signed).

But in the past three weeks I’ve read several manuscripts that fall afoul of the What if… method, because the author had this cool What if… idea, and then stopped. They started with an idea like What if everybody had a flying car and a humanoid robot butler, the way all those 1950s ideas of the future showed it? Or What if that nasty third-grade teacher was an actual witch?

Unfortunately, these authors didn’t carry it to a logical conclusion; they didn’t show any consequences of the changes they were postulating. People in the world with flying cars live and act pretty much like people in this one. The nasty third-grade teacher uses magic to catch the kids throwing spitballs and trying to cheat on their homework, but she doesn’t have an agenda other than to, well, teach class, and the class itself is relentlessly normal.

This might have worked fine if the authors had intended to write a literary-style slice-of-life story, or if they’d wanted to make a point about people being the same even if you give them flying cars or magic. But it was pretty clear from the way the authors were struggling with their stories that they didn’t want to write that sort of thing. They wanted something with a plot, but they didn’t know how to find one in their cool What if… idea.

And that’s the fundamental problem with the advice I’ve seen – it pretty much assumes that if you have a What if… idea, you will automatically get from there to a plot with little or no further effort. Unfortunately, there are several types of What if… ideas, and only one lends itself to that sort of easy plot generation (and even that isn’t easy for everybody).

The easy one is the one that comes with obvious problems for the hero built in. (Because that’s what plot is about – solving problems.) What if the South had won the Civil War? What if a deadly virus escaped from a research lab? are both this sort of idea. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with people who are going to have a lot of life-altering problems as a result of either of these scenarios, whether that involves coping with the aftermath of war and the totally changed political landscape or struggling to find a cure before the virus decimates world population.

What if everybody had a flying car?, on the other hand, is a world-building what-if. The only problem that is evident at first look is the location of traffic jams; if the author wants a plot, he/she has to dig a little further into the implications of flying cars. What sort of fuel do they use, and is it something that’s in short supply? Do they cause more ecological problems than our cars, or less? Are they based on some new discovery in physics (like anti-gravity), and if so, what else could it be used for? Who would be fighting their use and who would be supporting it? Are they faster than our cars, or more dangerous, or much cheaper? Who would care, and why? Where do they all get parked?

What if the third grade teacher is actually a witch? is either a character what-if or a situation what-if. Either way, there are a lot of questions to be answered before a plot shows up – Why is a witch teaching at a regular school? Is she new, or has she been doing this for years? How did she get to be a witch: was she born with magic, or did she teach herself out of a book, or is there a whole secret society of magical people a la Harry Potter’s world? Is she hiding from other witches, or is she their spy? Is she teaching magic, or just using it herself? And, of course, the obvious: Is she a good witch, or a bad witch?

A situational what-if is more interested in what’s going on, which usually leads into what happens next as soon as the author figures out who the viewpoint/main character will be. A character what-if is more interested in the people – why a real witch would be teaching third grade, how her students would react if they found out she was a witch.

In all cases, starting with a what-if doesn’t automatically provide you with a main character or a plot problem, not even the obviously plot-centered what-ifs. You have to poke around, based on what intrigues you about the idea. For one writer, What if a deadly virus escapes? will immediately generate a story from the viewpoint of the guilty scientist who invented it or whose carelessness let it out; for another, the story will clearly be about the intrepid reporter who tracks down the cover-up; for a third, it’ll be about an ordinary kid trying to survive and deal with guilt as his family and friends die around him; for the next, it’ll be about the clean-up and reconstruction after a cure is found but too late for everything to easily go back to normal. Or perhaps the writer wants to do a massive bestseller-style novel that touches on all these things, or a semi-historical novel with a present-day timeline and a parallel timeline in the 1400s at the height of the Black Plague. And for some, the story will present all these possibilities at once, right away.

Even then, the writer will still have to decide which of them to make into a book, whether it’s the intrepid reporter or the whistleblower who’s the main character (or is it an ensemble cast?), how much damage the virus will do before it is stopped or burns itself out, what the “win” condition for the characters is (i.e., one writer may decide the characters win by stopping the virus and finding a cure in time; in another story, the “win” may be an escape to Mars with a virus-free remnant of humanity, or just surviving long enough for the disease to burn out and people to start rebuilding.

It’s usually harder to find those potential story lines when the what-if is a world-building type, or one that doesn’t have obvious major implications, the way the escaped virus does. The process is still pretty much the same; it just starts with “Who are the people for whom this change will create problems? What sort of problems? Which one interests me?” And the character or situation type of what-if still needs the writer to decide what that witch character is like, whether the viewpoint will be one of the kids, the witch herself, another teacher or teacher’s aide, or a parent, and what kind of story the author wants to tell.

Most writers make some of those decisions – especially the larger ones, like who the main character is and whether they’re writing about the search for a cure, surviving the crisis, or the coverup – up front, before they start writing Chapter One. The rest of the decisions happen along the way, as the story gets written. Some writers start three or six or twenty Chapter Ones, trying out different possibilities before they settle on the one they’re going to write. And some just sit down and start writing without thinking much first. Those last tend to have a lot of trouble, unless they are the rare writer for whom make-it-ALL-up-as-you-go is their normal writing process.

  1. I use “what if” almost entirely for world-building, leaving plot development as a separate thing.

    [reposted under different email due to an apparent spam-eater.]

    • Everybody seems to be having trouble with the comments lately; I have forwarded complaints to the techfolk, and hopefully things will be working properly again soon.

      • OK, now that I know that you know, I can stop being a pest about it.

  2. it pretty much assumes that if you have a What if… idea, you will automatically get from there to a plot with little or no further effort.

    I think you’ve put your thumb directly on why most how-to-plot advice doesn’t work for me.

    And possibly also on part of why plots are hard for me. I don’t get a lot of What-if sort of ideas, and on the rare occasions I do, they’re not the sort that lend themselves to plots. Or I’m not the sort for whom that comes easily, or possibly both. 😉

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