In Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius, she writes about the what if in fiction. The “what if” provides the external impetus that will kick off the protagonist’s internal struggle (43). The what if on its own is not enough for a book, but it can be a powerful way to begin to frame an idea and see where it takes you. Here are some examples from stories you may be familiar with:
- What if a child who was mistreated by people who were supposed to care for him grew into a position of power over these same people? (The Count of Monte Cristo)
- What if there was an incriminating letter that had to be hidden, but the police were at the door? (“The Purloined Letter”)
- What if there was a way to murder someone who was generally despised in such a way as to guarantee that everyone involved would keep silent? (Murder on the Orient Express)
- What if someone invented a time machine that could go backward and forward in time? (The Time Machine)
- What if a man who was content with his life of privilege and with doing what was expected of him by everyone else, met a woman who won his heart despite her unorthodox ways? (The Age of Innocence)
One way to think about this is to consider the what if as the premise or the “inciting incident” of a novel, but it is a little more nuanced than that. The what if is an external action or circumstance, but it has to push the protagonist into an internal struggle. It cannot just be a cool premise or it will fall flat. For example, in the original Planet of the Apes movie, the final irony is revealed when Charleton Heston sees the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he has traveled not to another planet, but to the future of the earth. In the Marky Mark version of the Planet of the Apes, the ending has zero punch, because, and this is what the director even says in the commentary, they just tried to come up with a cool twist. If you’ve seen it, they travel to another planet and when they come back to earth, with NO EXPLANATION, it has been taken over by apes. Dumb and SO unsatisfying. I am not going to entertain debate on what might explain this stupid ending; the point I want to make is that you can’t just aim for a cool twist/what if. It has to make sense and it has to have a point, and it has to drive the protagonist to struggle.
With all of this in mind, think about your idea for a book. What is the What If that will cause your protagonist to make a decision, take an action, start the struggle?