7 Reasons Why ‘What If?’ Is The Most Important Question You Can Ask As A Writer

7 Reasons Why ‘What If?’ Is The Most Important Question You Can Ask As A Writer


In this post, we look at the benefits of using ‘What if?’ as a problem-solving and idea-generating tool for fiction writers. We show you how to use it for three key elements in storytelling and share some exercise ideas and other tips.

‘What If?’ – A Question To Trigger Great Fiction

What if she doesn’t die but comes back as a ghost? What if the story takes place in a village rather than the suburbs? What if the magic carpet takes her directly to the wizard?

Yes, asking the question ‘What if?’ provides a neat framework for the ideas spilling from you brain, which can often be chaotic. It is a way to give your creativity free reign; it is also a way to provide your ‘daydreaming’ a purpose.

‘What if?’ Two words. One question. And an important step in the creative process. It truly is a helpful tool for writers to use at almost any point in their writing.

While writing a story recently, I used it to overcome a frustrating plot problem. I realised that I had been using ‘What if?’ as a writing prompt for years.

The One Creative Writing Strategy You Need

If you’ve never tried it, why not start today? You can use ‘What if?’ to come up with the seed of a story, or you can address a specific problem along the way of a writing project.

Whatever gets you going, you will realise ‘What if?’ is the most important question you can ask of yourself as a writer.

7 Reasons Why ‘What If?’ Is The Most Important Question You Can Ask As A Writer

Here are seven reasons why:

1 | You Will Sidestep The Clichés

Our default ideas are not always the best or original. Often the idea is a kind of cryptomnesia, a simple bastardisation of something you saw on Netflix on Friday, or read in a novel last month. Lazy writers reach for the lowest shelf and pick up a bag of clichés. Sweat out that original idea.

2 | You’re Compelled To Come Up With Ideas Or Scenarios

If you structure a brainstorm or, better yet, put a time limit on it you will be surprised at how many ‘What if?’ scenarios you can come up with in 10 to 30 minutes. Don’t worry if most of the ideas are nonsense or obscure. Get it all down.

3 | You Will Generate Multiple Ideas

It is always better to have more to choose from than less. When you have a score of ideas, it is easier to spot the good ones and weed out those that may not work for the story or novel.

4 | You Will Stimulate Your Creativity

When you set off on a ‘What if?’ brainstorm, you can’t help but rouse the muse from slumber. The right brain is engaged, the imagination runs free. You will start to see possibilities in an expanding world. Just follow and record everything that pops in your head.

5 | You Start To Form Good Writing Habits

The more often you practise the technique, the stronger your creative muscles will work for you. The ideas you generate will be fresh and exciting. As you practise it, you will find it easier to generate good ideas in a short space of time. You will form good writing habits.

6 | You Get All Your Thoughts Down In One Session

Rather than drifting along, keeping random notes jotted on a scrap of paper or as electronic notes on your phone, you set it all down in a single brainstorm. The benefit of this approach? You don’t feel unfocused and you let go of the guilt of procrastination.

7 | You Will Avoid Getting Stuck

We all know how easy it is to stall the creative engine. Writers block can be crippling; it erodes our confidence. The ‘What if?’ exercise can be empowering. It puts you back in control. Evidence of your own creativity has a bolstering effect on your mood and productivity.

The Key To Successful Results

In order for ‘What if?’ ideas to work, you have to do your brainstorming on paper.  The truth is you are apt to not only forget an idea but dismiss it as too formless or vague – and you may be missing a gem of an idea.

Three Techniques

Here are three popular techniques to explore:

  1. Crazy 8s: You can do this one with a friend or on your own. Take a blank A4 paper and fold it in half three times over. When you unfold the paper, you will have eight squares. Fill in each square with a ‘What if?’ scenario. Set a time limit for the exercise.
  2.  Sticky Ideas: See how many ‘What if?’ ideas you can cram on 4×4-inch Post-its or sticky notes in a set time period. You could use pink notes for plot idea, orange for sub-plots, blue for characters and so forth.
  3. Pen & Paper: Simple pen and paper or a good old-fashioned notebook probably works the best. Make yourself a cup of coffee or herbal tea, find a quiet spot and get your ideas down.

Use The Techniques For Three Crucial Story Elements

1 | Plot

The plot of your story or novel is often the element that will stump you. You can use the technique to solve larger plot arcs. ‘What if?’ is in fact a great way to imagine the overarching storyline or theme. For example: ‘What if crime actually does pay?’ ‘What if a crazy ex-lover buys the apartment next door?’

However, you can also use it to come up with ideas for specific scenes or chapters – in fact, any key moment in the story.

In the story I was writing, I struggled to find a way for the antagonist to come back to into my hero’s life in a believable way. I jotted down seven ‘What?’ ideas – each just two or three lines. After a coffee break, I struck out five ideas. From the remaining two, I finally fashioned a plausible plot point.

2 | Characters

Finding a character’s motivation can be a challenge. You can absolutely use the technique to get under the skin of your villain or as a way to get to know your main character a bit better.

For example: ‘What if she is an identical twin to a sick sister?’ Would that make her a naturally more protective woman? ‘What if her sister relies on her too much?’ And so on …

Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.

3 | Setting

The backdrop of your story can also benefit from some creative brainstorming. A unique setting can make your story more memorable in an editor’s or reader’s mind.

For example: ‘What if the break-up takes place in a museum and the lovers are forced to whisper and hiss?’ ‘What if the chase scene happens in Mini-Town?’ From just these two examples, you can see how some creative thinking adds levity, comedy and irony to a scene or moment.

Sometimes a setting may even trigger a ‘What if?’ moment that ties in with plot and character. For example: ‘What if a hot-headed surfer ignores the shark spotter’s warning and dives into the waves?’ What will happen next?

If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.

The Last Word

Let’s leave you with some tips for using ‘What if?’

  1. Ideas are of course endless and, sadly, so is the opportunity for dilly-dallying and procrastination. Just as you set a time limit on ideation, do the same with making a decision. The trick is not to get stuck in an ideation cycle, as fun as it may be.
  2. Don’t wait until you become frustrated, overwhelmed, or depressed to try the technique. Suffering is for martyrs. Make your problem-solving fun. When you find yourself stuck, set your manuscript aside, get away from your PC screen and reach for pen and paper.
  3. Think like a child: an idea cannot be too wacky or weird at this stage. Take it a step further – think like a psycho killer, a Disney princess, a goldfish, your Mom. Go wild!

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

anthony ehlers Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes aweso0me blog posts and workbooks too.

More Posts From Anthony:

  1. Writers Talk 8 | My Year Of Writing
  2. The 5 Pillars Of Family Sagas
  3. 101 Romance Tropes For Writers
  4. 10 Powerful Visual Storytelling Techniques for Writers
  5. Novels & Screenplays: What’s The Difference?
  6. 4 Things To Do Before You Write A Single Word Of Your Screenplay

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Mrs. P.A. Greening

    Thanks Anthony. I almost didn’t read this article, as I thought I knew it all. But of course one never does “know it all”, and my thinking needed a refresher course. You put it all together so succinctly – just when I needed it, as I’d reached a sticky place on my WIP.

  2. Anthony

    Thanks Mrs Greening. So glad it helped a bit.

Comments are now closed.