The best question I ask of my writing is, “What If?” That’s all I need is a two-word question to open my mind for exploration. I have a sign next to my desk with this question, which reminds me to open my mind and explore what could be, instead of what should be.

Asking “What If?” allows us to explore possibilities in setting, character, plot, sentence, individual words, and punctuation! When we’re asking ourselves “What should be?” we’re closing our minds to potential; the potential for surprise, greatness, something entirely new, and possibly enlightenment.

Setting

Asking “What if?” of your setting allows you to explore new features of landscapes, political/social rules and dynamics, or a relative era that people understand such as medieval, modern, or space.

Examples:

  • What if the ocean was in the air, and we could see all sea life in the sky?
  • What if people in the city didn’t wear shoes?
  • What if people’s shoes were made of rocks, instead of leather and cloth?

Character

Asking “What If?” of your character is similar to getting to know someone you’re interested in, except you decide their traits. It may be something you don’t like (they’re a liar) or admire (they’re ambitious), but by asking yourself “What if?” you explore your character’s soul, their strengths, and their faults.

Examples:

  • What if my character couldn’t keep their hands off anything colored red?
  • What if my character had a crush on his professor?
  • What if my character crushed his professor under a car in auto shop?
  • What if the antagonist turned out to be the guy who owned the bowling alley?

Plot

Asking “What If?” on the plot allows you to explore a whole range of “What if this happened?” and “What if this was why my characters are…?” This is where stories throw the reader a curveball, a big surprise, something unexpected and new. This is where the real meat and potatoes of storytelling takes place if your story isn’t character driven. (Romance is usually character driven.)

Examples:

  • What if, instead of a dystopian society, we have a happy culture, and then something terrible happens to threaten it.
  • What if the protagonists’ job is to protect the happy culture by defeating the enemy far away from the society?
  • What if the hero’s home was gobbled up by giant turkeys?

Sentence, Words, and Punctuation

Even the smallest details can change a story. Most conventional (that is, stupid and should be ignored) wisdom is that you shouldn’t use the exclamation point. Except, here’s the thing: Famous authors abuse this symbol; they misuse punctuation; their sentences sometimes don’t make sense.

That’s because they asked, “What if?” of one last point I want to state. Ask yourself: “What if I broke the rules?

The real benefit of asking “What If?” is to get your head out of how things are expected; how they ought to be; what others approve of and already know. When you explore “What If?” you are breaking away from the norm, and really, what author wants their books to be called “Normal?” Not this author.

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