The power of “What if?”

question by Colin K

I recently discussed that I was looking at changing my writing processes to include outlining and planning rather than just pantsing; and as I was thinking about a trilogy I thought outlining and planning was going to be very important.

In preparation for this change I researched how other writers planned and outlined their work – and it appears that there are lots of planners out there.

Many writers discussing the planning process include “thinking about the idea” as the most important part of this process and that it was to be done before anything else.

I have been thinking about the characters of my new work for some time and all the things that may occur to them and how they might react (of course once I start writing they don’t always react as expected…but I love that about writing.)

Neil Gaiman discussed developing his ideas by asking questions:

  • What if?
  • And then what?
  • If only?
  • I wonder…?

KM Weiland in her book “Outlining” actually suggests this questioning and querying as part of the outlining process. To actively consider all the possibilities of what could happen to the characters, what is expected by the reader and turning it on its head. And it could be simple things or crazy things, opposite to what you think your character might do, or what the reader might expect. Just jotting down the ideas as they flow. Sensible or not.

This has opened up some interesting ideas for me and has helped hugely with the plotting of my project. Even now, part way in when I’m not sure I list a few what if’s…

For example a character returns to the storyline to find his lover has disappeared…

  • What if he tries to find her?
  • What if he carries on with his duty?
  • What if he unable to leave in the search?
  • What if he does not really love her?
  • What if he is relieved she is gone?
  • What if he is in love with someone else?
  • What if he does something crazy in his search for her?
  • What if he is killed in his search?

I could go on…

For each character and plot idea I did this before I started writing. I created pages of possible and impossible possibilities. Many were ignored when I started pulling the ideas together, and others provided some great ideas and plot twists I would not have otherwise considered.

When I started I had the idea for the story but this process could similarly be used to start the ideas generating for the story before you start.

KM Weiland gives lots of examples in her book, but for my story it could be:

‘What if the wrong sister was crowned queen?’

This led to: ‘Who thinks she is the wrong one and why?’ and then ‘Who will do what to rectify the situation?’

Holly Lisle suggests interviewing the characters, which is something I have done in the past but had not consciously attempted for this project. Her idea is to ask things like:

  • Why are you there?
  • Why do you want to see another character?
  • What did you feel when you saw them?

For my example above I could ask:

  • Why do you want to find her?
  • What frame of mind to you expect to find her in?
  • Do you think she wants to be found?
  • If you find her what will you do? Will you make her return or stay with her?

That is of course if he decides to join the search. If he were to remain to do his duty:

  • Why do you think your duty is more important?
  • What do you think she will think of you if you do not search?
  • Do you care for her?
  • Do you understand why she left? (this could work for both)

I think this is a useful tool and could help me fill some gaps once I run out of flow and need to go back. I now have about 85,000 words but they are spread across the expanse of two books (so there are many gaps to fill).

I do not write linearly, no matter how hard I try or the fact that I have planned out this series, it just isn’t in me. So I am writing as it comes to me and I will reorganise as I need to for the second draft. I am still enjoying the process and I’m finding the flow quite easily.

We all write differently. What tools have you discovered that help in the planning process?


 Image is courtesy of Colin_K (originally on Flickr)