“What” and “if” are the two most important words in fiction writing - or they are if you stick them together and put a question mark after them.
Why? Because that little phrase “What if..?” is the inspiration behind just about every successful work of fiction ever written: the catalyst, the trigger, the spark that lights the blue touch-paper before the fireworks begin.
Writers’ forums are full of people asking their fellow members “What shall I write about?” or confessing “I want to be a novelist but can’t think what to write”.
An unhelpful observer might say that if you can’t think what to write about, maybe you lack the imagination you need to be a writer - but those two words, “What if..?” will always come to your rescue if you let them.
Open a newspaper, hear a headline on the TV or radio, and you can apply those two words to any scenario you like.
It can transform even the dullest or most ordinary of events into something exciting or dramatic that your future readers will want to know about, and keep turning those pages.
For instance (and this was, admittedly, far from a dull event), Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, remarked as he was coming down the steps of the Lunar Module that he made damned sure the door didn’t lock behind him - the first joke ever told on the Moon, yes, but one of the great what-ifs in history.
What if the door really had locked behind him? What would have happened to Buzz and Neil Armstrong? Could Nasa have got a rescue mission to them in time? At what point would Nasa have turned off the cameras to avoid letting the world see the astronauts die, slowly, live on TV back here on Earth?
Just two words, but there’s a novel, a film, a whole bunch of writing opportunities there.
You can apply “What if..?” to so many scenarios, and it can make even the most barren of imaginations suddenly fertile again.
What if... a 12-year-old computer hacker got into the launch codes on one of Britain’s nuclear submarines as it circled the globe on standby for World War Three?
What if... the two adopted people who’ve just got married after the most wonderfully romantic relationship traced their birth parents through a DNA database and discovered, to their horror, that they were actually brother and sister?
What if... historians had confused the William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon with another William Shakespeare from Stratford in London - the place where he made his name - and the entire tourism industry surrounding the playwright’s traditional birthplace was suddenly in peril, forcing tourism chiefs to take desperate measures to stop the story getting out?
What if... Alexander Graham Bell had died in an accident just before he could perfect his invention of the telephone: would someone else have done it or would we still be relying on semaphore... and without the internet, would you even be reading this?
Those were just a few ideas off the top of my head, literally as I was writing this, but you can already see how those two little words can help even the likes of me conjure up scenarios that could keep you going for an entire novel or even a TV series.
If you’re sitting there in lockdown, waiting for the world to open up again, you could ask whoever’s there, or a friend on Facebook, to read you a headline at random from today’s newspapers and challenge you to write at least a little piece about it.
Just ask yourself “What if..?” and the ideas will start flowing.
There’s a lot more to writing than that, obviously, but getting started is often the hardest part for so many of us.
And now a “What if..?” from me.
What if you liked this piece so much that you gave it a Heart on Vocal or even shared a link to it on Facebook and your other social media?
What if that generated so many reads that Vocal actually had to pay me something like the $6,000 a month that its Facebook ads claim we can earn if we’re any good?
Go for it, I say!
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