Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The "What If?” Game

How long have you been staring at the blank screen? How long have you been ‘editing’ your story but haven’t actually made any progress? Have you been avoiding your laptop in favour of new recipes, spring cleaning, and updating the photo album? Maybe you even tackled that closet at the end of the hall…you know, the one you try not to open because it is just too hard to get shut again. (No? Is it just me then…?)

Some people might call this writer’s block. I just say that I am stuck, because that’s exactly what I am. Like a toddler in his first mud puddle, I’m not moving anywhere. In fact, I think I might be sinking a little. The water is at the top of my boots and I’m going to have wet socks any minute.

I’m not sure what wet socks equate to in writing…maybe I’ve taken the metaphor too far. The point is--I’m stuck.

I’ve started writing new stories; I’ve returned to old ones. I’ve taken a break. I’ve picked up a new book, watched a few movies—Oscar winning ones, I set my expectations high. It doesn’t matter, I’m not moving anywhere. So what now? Obviously I keep writing. That’s what we do. If we aren’t writing…well, we aren’t writing and that is just frustrating.

Probably one of the best suggestions I’ve heard is what I call the “What If?” game. The premise is simple. At any point in the story, I ask: What if… and see where it takes me. Here, I’ll demonstrate.

Kara is the VP of a very profitable hotel chain. Her cousins would say that her life is work, but Kara takes great pride in the company her grandfather built from the ground up and doesn’t mind the long hours. She loves the company and is being groomed to take it over. The hotel is more than just her job. She grew up there so it is her home and the employees are her family.

WHAT IF she takes over the company tomorrow?

Kara would be ecstatic. Her dream has come true. Or has it?

WHAT IF she is reluctant to take over the company because it means her grandfather is too ill to do the work himself?

Kara has a strong personality so she will overcome this obstacle in order to achieve her goal. She will make sure the company thrives because her grandfather is ill.

“What if” statements are one of the easiest ways to draw conflict into your story. If Kara is happy and everything turns out the way she planned, it becomes a very predictable and very short story. The goal is to push our characters to the limit so let’s up the stakes in this scenario. This is one time it pays off to be negative and think worst case.

WHAT IF the company and job she loves are threatened?

Kara will fight for the company. If not for herself and her goal of one day taking it over, then she’d do it for her grandfather who is ailing and the employees who are like family to her.

WHAT IF the threat to the company is the HERO?

Once Kara knows who the threat is, she will face him head on. May the best man or woman win.

WHAT IF Kara doesn’t know who is trying to take over her company?

She’s going to do whatever it takes to talk to this person. I mean, who do they think they are?

WHAT IF Kara can’t confront the threat?

He is out of town and is not returning her phone calls. His staff are polite and absolutely no help. She’ll have to wait for his return, they tell her. Not being able to tackle this problem head on, having to wait??? It is going to drive her crazy…

WHAT IF Kara goes a little crazy?

If things don’t go her way, she will be forced to step out of her comfort zone. Watching Kara step out of her comfort zone could be interesting. Who knows what will happen.

Well, I think I just wrote myself out of my block. Hope it works as well for you!


Paula R said...

Hey Anne, I love this "game". I think it is a great way to just start writing from the germ of the idea. Glad you were able to get back on the writing train. I need to try this and see where it takes me.

Have a great rest of the day okay. I will check back in later on.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Anne, I like this "What if?" brainstorming process. It could lead to many different options for where the story could go, and then once done it gives you something to work with.


Karyn Good said...

Love your example. Very well done! I love the 'what if?' game, too. When I'm stuck I list about 15 'what if?' options and by the time I get to #12 or 13 my brain is in gear and I've got a direction in mind.

Great post, Anne! Now, I'm off to play 'what if?'

Silver James said...

G'morning, Anne. There is a reason my little imp of a Muse is named Iffy. "What if?" is her favorite game. Unfortunately, she loves to torture me with a totally new scenario/book idea when I really need her to be focused on the current WIP. Did I mention she runs with scissors?

Glad you what-if'd your way around the block! Happy writing.

Vince said...

Hi Anne:

You are right. “What if” questions are a great way to stimulate creativity. I use them all the time. But how about this:

What if there were no “What ifs”?

What if, instead of an uncertain sea of ‘what ifs’, there was the solid rock of plot?

Imagine a plot that is so compelling and so well thought out, with an ending so satisfying, that it is almost impossible to pull yourself away from your keyboard.

Imagine not having to worry where you are going but rather how to make each 'page-step' of the journey as rewarding and entertaining for the reader as possible.

Creating such a plot is the heavy lifting of writing. A writer may not even be able to do it. If the story is not in the writer, how is it going to come out? The cost of plotting in advance is high. But as the commercial says: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

What do you think?


connie said...

Good blog. Good way to get at it again. Since I have been blocked so long the block is starting to row moss, I will give 'what if' a try.
I suppose my first 'what if' should be whether or not to ditch this wip and try the one that keeps me awake at night.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anne,
What if your hero wants to take over the company and decides to check out the running of the hotel while undercover? He applies for a job as Kara's assistant, spends lots of time with her, and naturally, because this is a romance, falls in love with her. Of course when Kara finds out she'd feel betrayed.

Okay. Whew! Just had to get that off my chest.

As you can tell, I love the "What If?" game too. I use this method to create my plot. The trick is to not use the first "What if" you come up with. Think of a number of different scenarios and then go with the one that seems most unlikely or off the wall or interesting. You put enough "What ifs" together and you've got yourself a plot.


Janet said...

The "What if" game does yield results - often when I'm stuck, I'll list 10 possible scenerios going forward (nothing is off limits). Usually, the brain will find something that clicks. AND the bonus - you'll come up with some other interesting tidbits that will start another story idea.

Great post, Anne - good luck with whatever direction you decided to go :)

Helena said...

'What if' is probably the engine behind every plot that we think we just thought up on our own!

As Vince pointed out, if you use your "What If?" game when you are plotting the story in the first place, there may not come a time when you are blocked.

However, I also use 'what if' thinking when I'm not sure where a scene is going. It might not ultimately change the plot in the big picture sense, but in the details. As simple as where should the heroine be (at home, at work, at a coffee shop, etc.) when she receives some unsettling news? So you run through the various outcomes of each situation, which of course will have an effect on how she reacts and on what she does next.

Great post today, Anne. See how useful your 'block' is to the rest of us? Hope you have clear sailing in your writing from now on.

Anne Germaine said...

Every time it is my turn to blog, I seem to be away from my desk. I apologize for the late check in on the comments!

Anne Germaine said...

Paula - I'm glad you found this exercise helpful. Whatever works, right? Good luck with your writing!

Anne Germaine said...

Joanne - I like that it is sort of a written record of how you chose the direction for your story and why. If something doesn't work, you reframe the question or go back a 'why'.

Anne Germaine said...

Thanks for the comment Karen. You are right, it doesn't take long before the ideas start coming!

Anne Germaine said...

LOL Silver. You and I have the same imp. It is so easy to get started on another story...

Anne Germaine said...

This is something I've been struggling with plot or not to plot. I'm trying something new (that's how we grow) and trying to write one page at a time. I'll figure the rest out later!

Anne Germaine said...

Connie, maybe you didn't push your 'what if' enough? Make your character do something out of character--what will happen then? I assume you are working on your ring story--what if you started at the end, instead of the beginning?

Just a thought. I hate being in a block.

Anne Germaine said...

Jana - I'm not sure if it is a good thing or not that your plot idea is surprisingly close to the actual plot (my tentative title is "Undercover Boss" hehe). Does that make is predictable?

Anne Germaine said...

Helena, it is a useful tool for plotting however I'm finding that I'm learning a lot about my character as well.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Anne. I play the 'what if' game whether I'm stuck or not. It's usually the first thing I do when I start plotting and yeah, the first I do whenever I'm not sure what path my characters will take next.

Great post.