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This Writing Life: ‘What Ifs’ and ‘Whys’

24 February, 2011

There is a simple question that can often be asked to help make developing a world and story easier, particularly in the writing and planning of SF and fantasy novels. What if…? This is clearly important in the realms of alt. history: ‘what if the western Roman Empire never fell?’ ‘What if Europeans had never ventured to America?’ ‘What if Genghis Khan had conquered Europe?’ In other areas of the genre, ‘what ifs’ can be just as important, and might form the basis of any number of stories. ‘What if vampires were real and living among us?’ ‘What if aliens came to Earth with the intention of making humanity a race of slaves for their intergalactic building projects?’

Now, these are fairly obvious ‘what ifs’, so it’s fair to say that you can begin to develop much more interesting stories with more nuanced questions. You can also ask similar questions about characters: ‘What if a child is brought up to be a soldier, only to have the war end and leave them trying to make their way in a peaceful world?’ From that single ‘what if’, you can build a whole raft of different questions (‘What would that child be like as an adult and how would they relate to their new world?’) and, more crucially, the answers to them.

As well as the whats and the hows though, I think there’s a question that can be just as important to ask, and one which can make your story far deeper: why? ‘Why would those aliens choose Earth?’ ‘Why were children being trained to fight in a war at all?’ Asking why things are happening in your story – both why events have unfolded in a certain way and why your characters are acting the way they are – allows you to get a different perspective on your writing. When plots and characters arrive fully-formed from your subconscious, it’s asking ‘why?’ that helps make them clearer and stronger, both for yourself and your readers.

There are any number of questions you can ask in writing fiction, and I think ‘what if’ and ‘why’ are two of the most important. Of course, you’ve got to make sure you answer them too, or face a whole barrage of angry readers… But’s that an entirely different blog post!

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