Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"What If ..."; the Great Story Launcher

A few years ago, my mother celebrated her ninetieth birthday. At the informal family event that was all she would allow us to organise in her honour, I looked around at all the family members who had gathered to celebrate with her: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren It was quite a large gathering. My father, her husband for almost 64 years, had died four years earlier, but his influence and spirit were very much with us that day. The thought occurred to me: what if they had not met, fallen in love, and spent those many years together? Every life decision has consequences of great importance to subsequent generations.

This weekend, as many of the same family members gathered to share Thanksgiving dinner, my mother (now 94) was among those enjoying the turkey and reminiscing as we tend to do when we get together. One of the comments she made was to my brother, the youngest of her four children, whose house we were at and whose own family counting himself, his wife, children, spouses, grandchildren adds up to twelve. She said, “Just think. If I hadn’t decided almost sixty years ago that I wanted another baby ....” Well, it stopped us all in our tracks as we all contemplated one of those great “what if” moments. I can think of twelve people giving thanks for that decision!

Probably the first advice I ever heard about getting story ideas was to let your mind wander along the path that begins with that sign post: What if ...

What if two people happen to meet on a train station platform (back in the days of coal-fired steam locomotives)? One of them is a doctor, a married man with a family, who helps the other, a young married woman, get a piece of cinder from her eye? And what if it turns out that they both take trains from the same platform once a week? Yes, you have a story idea developing.

What if a young soldier is wounded in battle and a pretty nurse looks after him during the long months of recuperation in hospital? But what if his fiancĂ© from home, who has joined the women’s air force unit, is posted overseas and drops in unexpectedly to visit him? Conflict simmers.

Using "what if" as a starting point is common with science fiction writers, but is useful for other genres of writing as well. The possibilities are endless, of course. And some of them can be much stranger than the brief examples I’ve given. Even a bizarre situation can become a credible story line when taken to its inevitable conclusion. Or maybe it’s not so inevitable. The “what if” can result in several alternative endings, some may tie up all the stray ends, others may be more ambiguous. Either way, the reader can be taken on a breath-taking journey as you tell the story.

When I was younger, much younger, and aspiring to be a writer, I had difficulty conjuring up plots for stories. In those days I was interested mainly in short stories. Later in life, I placed the blame for my difficulties on my youth, my lack of life experience. But now I think it was more likely I did not know of the technique of looking around my world, and saying to myself, “What if the people in that situation did such and such, what would happen?” And then imagining the consequences. And writing a story around the situation.

Carol Rzadkiewicz suggests writers can use what she calls “story prompts” to get started with stories or to overcome that phenomenon known as “writer’s block.” These can be bits of conversation, a narrative line, or a series of “what ifs” that will jog the imagination.

What techniques do you use to either break out of a stall in your plot, or to initiate a new story idea? What advice would you give a new writer who is having difficulty generating fresh story lines with creative twists and unexpected situations?


Janet C. said...

Great post, Helena! I'm always playing the 'what if' game and my mind takes off at light speed. My mistake is most times I don't write my wanderings down and when I try to recall that little story I can't. Must. Write. Down.

As for stalls - my best advice is the advice Molli gave me at retreat one year. My stalls are usually too many choices for direction - so she suggested I get out a pen and paper and write out 10 - 12 twists. No matter how crazy they seem, write them down. One of them will speak to you and you can continue in that direction.

If I were to give advice to a new writer - because I'm a character driven writer - I would suggest listing possible male and female characters and seeing if any speak to each other. I know Jana did this in a writing exercise and her soon to be released Burning Love was the result of that prompt.

Silver James said...

There's a reason my Muse is named Iffy. "What If" is her favorite game and I have far more plots and characters than I will ever be able to put to paper.

When I get stalled, I introduce a "narrator"--a omniscient character who can see all. I let him/her take over the story and tell it. One time, it was a dog. The scene ended on the cutting room floor, as they say, because the dog turned to me and said, "I don't care what they say, dog is NOT god spelled backwards." I realized I was trying to force the plot into a place it wasn't going to fit. This works for me but might not for anyone else.

Hrm...new writer advice. Find a picture you like. Or a song. And build a story around the scene in the picture or the words of the lyrics. I still do this, too.

Hush, Iffy! Yes. I KNOW you want to finish both of those stories! Soon...work before play. Back to it...

Helena said...

Hi, Janet. I agree that writing down those flashes of story ideas is very important. So much so that I have been trying to follow the advice of a writing instructor to learn how to jot them down in the dark as they occur to me overnight!

Lovely to have so many choices come to mind, but decision-making is not my forte, so that would be crippling for me to know which thread to pick up and go with. I am a list-maker, tho, so writing down options is a good idea. As you say, when the right one hits the page, it should leap out and say, "Choose me."

Thanks for your ideas and advice. New writers today have so many more resources and accumulated wisdom from writers willing to share than what I remember as a young neophyte who didn't even continue writing. So glad I came back.

Helena said...

Thanks for taking time to tell us how you and Iffy collaborate to find and develop those great story ideas.

I like the idea of the omniscient narrator (which is, after all, the writer herself) who can look at all the options, turn them inside out, and choose the best. I guess that can be humbling, too, when the narrator turns to the writer (interesting image, that) and tells her what she's trying to do won't work. Good to get that second opinion. (Do you ever feel like a split personality? What with Iffy, Omni, or whatever you call your narrator, and don't forget, some version of Janet's EE, 'Evil Editor,' butting in with criticism.)

Great idea to use images for story inspiration. I always did think it would great to be able to step through a picture frame into the scene and disappear down that road to see what was around the corner.

Thanks for stopping by today, Silver.

Karyn Good said...

I love the 'what if' game too. My favorite place for ideas is the newspaper and the news. In fact, a ghost of story came to me this weekend by way of a newspaper article about Theo Fleury and the launch of his new book, Playing With Fire. The what if's just started coming and are now perculating somewhere on a backburner. I saved it and it'll get pasted to my office wall somewhere as inspiration.

As for being stalled, I reach for a pen and paper and start writing longhand or jotting down notes. And you can't beat talking or instant messaging someone and asking for help.

As for new writers (which I still feel like) and generating new ideas, just open your mind and leave it open and allow for those possibilities to come to you. Don't second guess those twinges of inspiration. Take it and run with it.

Helena said...

Good thoughts, Karyn. I know how you feel about being new to the game. I do, too. But it's kind of a heady feeling to know that, as writers, we can observe what's all around us, then by some magic (called hard work, mixed with that spark of inspiration you mentioned), turn it into fiction.

You gotta keep that notebook in your pocket or purse at all times. You don't know when you'll see something, or think of an idea, that could become a story. As you and Janet have both said, write it down, before it slips away.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I would add that when playing the the "what if" game, don't settle for the first possiblity that comes to mind. Donald Maass suggests this in his "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook". Let yourself come up with several possibilites and go with the one that is most unexpected, maybe a little "out there". It will likely provide the most tension to your novel.

Like Karyn, I often read a story in the newspaper that prompts "what if" ideas. News stories are great, but have you ever read the advice column? The Winnipeg Free Press has the "Miss Lonely Hearts" column and sometimes it's a hoot. I read a story the other day where a man went into the men's washroom at a posh restaurant and heard a beautiful woman crying in one of the stalls. He tentatively asked if she knew she was in the men's room, and she was horrified because she'd had no idea. She told him she'd just been "terminated" and had run off blindly. He checked the door for her to make sure the coast was clear and escorted her to the door and found her a cab. She called him Sir Galahad and gave him her card. He wanted to know if he should call her. Someday, somewhere I'm going to use this story and play a little what if game myself.


Helena said...

Wonderful, Jana. I can hardly wait to find the "bawling beauty in the men's washroom" episode in one of your books!

You've made a good point (and you really know your Maass) about being careful what scenario you choose, what path to go down with your story. Lots of twists and turns make for a more enthralling tale.

Glad you like the 'what if game' as much as I do.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Helena.

Your what if's got me thinking about alternate history prompts.

I use what if's to go at least 3 steps beyond my first ideas for a story. I always assume that my first ideas come easily because they're common. And if they're common, then others have had them, too. So I start playing the what if game and each time I go farther and stranger until I find something I hope is a unique story that only I could've thought up.

(Until I find it mirrors someone elses. sigh)