Writing With “What If?”

So last week I read Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card for the first time and loved it.  As I mentioned in my review on Sunday, it was one of the best character books I’ve ever read.  Card is just so good at creating characters with depth and emotion and breathing life into them.  So yes, it is possible for a Romance writer to learn about the craft of characters through reading Science Fiction.

But there was another aspect to Ender’s Game that proved to be invaluable to my writing craft: the introduction.  I was lucky in that the version of the book that I read had a long introduction by Card that talked about how he came up with the story and characters of Ender’s Game and the response that he has received to the book.

I love reading writers’ stories of how they engage in their craft, be it Stephen King’s On Writing or C.S. Forester’s book that he wrote about his experience of penning the Horatio Hornblower novels.  So of course I devoured Card’s introduction eagerly.  And I recommend that any time a writer includes an introduction with their book, anyone calling themselves a writer on any level should read it and take note.

© Iryna Shpulak | Dreamstime.com

© Iryna Shpulak | Dreamstime.com

What struck me the most about Card’s explanation of how he came up with the idea for Ender’s Game is his use of the question “What if?”.  As Card explains, he was a major fan of Asimov as a youngster and devoured all of his books.  He knew all along he wanted to write, but he grew (and apparently grows) increasingly impatient with authors who are only trying to recycle Asimov or Tolkien, retelling the same story with different characters and settings.  This is not, he says, the point of writing.

Card came to the idea of Ender’s Game by focusing on tiny aspects of Asimov’s work and asking “What if x, y, or z had happened differently?”  This seems so simple, and yet it forms the basis of all really great writing.

We have to start with the assumption that there are no original stories.  At the same time, we can’t be like those writers Card loses patience with who tell the same story over and over.  The key is to take some well-known aspect of a genre or a particular story and riff on the idea of “What if this happened instead?”

I think that the Romance genre is ripe for this kind of riffing.  In Romance we’re working with a known set of parameters.  In order to be defined as Romance the story must be about the development of the relationship between the hero and heroine and the hero and heroine must get together at the end with an emotionally satisfying conclusion.  Anything else and it’s not Romance.

You might think that those parameters preclude any originality of thought, but I definitely don’t believe that.  Romance is criticized because everyone knows going into it that they hero and heroine will end up together in the end.  Yes they will.  But it’s how they get there that truly matters, and there are a thousand different ways to reach an HEA.

I am particularly fond of this idea of “what if?” because that’s what launched my career as a writer.  I’m grateful to Card for talking about it openly, because I’ve received a wee bit of criticism for my what-if-ing.  My first novel, The Loyal Heart, has been compared favorably and unfavorably to the Robin Hood legend.  That was both deliberate and unintentional.

Robin_Hood_Louis_RheadThe Loyal Heart started with two big What If’s.  The first was “What if the Robin Hood story were told with the actual history of the time period instead of the propagandized version that most people think they know?”  The second What If was “What if the heroine fell in love with the bad guy?”  The first question was a direct riff on Robin Hood, the second was a riff on just about every one of the many Romance novels I’ve ever read.

Incidentally, The Faithful Heart started with the What If of “What if the goofy side-kick had to man-up and be a hero?” and The Courageous Heart began with “What if you woke up one day and realized you were an asshole who had ruined everyone’s lives?”

I know of a few people who encourage writers to begin their query letter for a given novel with that What If question.  I’m not actually in favor with that, but I am in favor of beginning the whole novel-writing process by asking “What if?”  When you hit the ground running, when you start the whole thing with a question that you are burning to find out, you’re going to have an easier writing experience.  You’re going to go places that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought to go.  Most importantly, you’re going to have a good time doing it.

Asking questions leads you to answers.  Asking “What if?” leads you to realms of imagination that will keep you busy for weeks asking and answering even more questions.  The beauty of it all is that no two people will come up with the same answers.  Card could start with Asimov and ask “what if?” to take him to someplace entirely new.

I personally think that just because you start with a known story, like Robin Hood, “what if” will quickly take you out of the known and into the unknown, into the original and personal.  I’ve been asking myself “What if Sarah didn’t remember the words to the poem at the end of Labyrinth and lost the bet with the Goblin King?” since I was a pre-teen.  I’ve got a whole fantasy world of spells and tricks that has nothing remotely to do with Labyrinth now.  There are a million ways you can answer a single question about a single story.

So thank you, Orson Scott Card, for helping me to see that daydreaming about someone else’s story is not only okay, it can lead to a whole world.  Anything is possible when you ask “What if?”

What are your favorite “what if?” ideas?  Are there any stories you’ve told or would like to tell that started with “what if?”

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10 thoughts on “Writing With “What If?”

  1. I am a big fan of “what if?” ideas. My Texas Druids trilogy is based on two such questions. 1. Since there are psychics among us now (I firmly believe there are) what if a few such gifted beings also inhabited the Old West? 2. What if these gifted ones are/were descendents of ancient Celtic Druids? I adopted these two premises and wove them into traditional western historical romances. Two are published, the third is close to completed.

  2. My entire family plays ‘what if’. We muse after a movie and change it up. We do this is in real life too. What if feeds the writing beast and keeps it strong.
    In my latest book I asked what if Apollo and Cassandra had another chance at love and what if they had to save another city from destruction in current time? I love what if! Thank you for the fine post. Now on to what if for another book.

  3. I, too, find the “what if?” question to be a good springboard. My first novel is based on my personal job experience, but with a huge “what if . . . my protagonist didn’t want his job?”

  4. Yes! Fabulous point. When I started writing, I knew I wanted to write something I would love as much as my favourite books and TV shows. But I knew there was no point just regurgitating them. So I said “Why do I like this character?”, etc… and I took those aspects into my own work and left the rest behind. Hopefully it has worked!
    But thank you for putting this into a well thought-out argument. It helps point out the distinction between plagiarizing and being influenced by something…

    • SO many of my stories start out exactly like that. Of course, by the end they don’t look a thing like their inspirational material, but I think that’s the point. 🙂

      • Glad I’m not the only one. With all this “fanfiction” going on to being published I was really nervous abou tthe fact my characters had started out based on others. I’m confident they’ve grown into their own, but, yeah… maybe I shouldn’t read so many book reviews!

        • It’s SUCH a fine line! I’ve been viciously criticized for what people see as The Loyal Heart being fanfiction, but I swear it’s not! Only, how do you explain that to people who don’t understand the creative process? I’m convinced it’s because they have no creativity of their own. But it has taught me a lesson about crafting characters, that’s for sure!

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