When “What if?” Isn’t Enough

By Larry Brooks

Those two words — what if? – can be a powerful tool for writers in search of their next story. In much the same way a chain saw can be productive for someone who understands what a chainsaw is for.

But they can also be seductive in a potentially toxic way (suddenly switching analogies here) in much the same way that someone with the face of an angel can walk through the door can end up breaking your heart. Because like a guy chasing a windmill, what if? can lead us toward a dead end. Or even a cliff.

Great stories — including great thrillers and mysteries, the stuff of our Killzone focus — need more than the intrigue of a puzzle or even the attraction to a character. They also need to launch a compelling dramatic arc that is worth reading about within a story world worth visiting, leaving the reader breathless from intrigue, raw with emotional resonance, and fulfilled from their return to reality from the vicarious experience you’ve thrust them into.

Toward this end, allow me to share one of the best writing tips I’ve ever heard, from the mouth of a New York agent who has lived even more decades that my very ancient self: when you feel an idea dawning, and your first impulse – versus instinct, which is different and orders of magnitude more valuable – is to jump on it and start writing (whatever that means to you, be you planner or pantser), the wiser writer (one with the scars to know better) will do this:

Run.

See if the idea chases you.

See if come morning that idea seems as ripe as it did in the heat of the brainstorm, or amidst the swoon of too many writing conference happy hour cocktails. Our goal should be to apply a higher level of criteria to the ideas that call our name (you wouldn’t marry someone after the first date – a blind date, at that – now would you?).

Here’s a fact: in the world of agents and publishers, more projects get rejected because of the story than because of the writing. These days your novel needs to be a home run piece of dramatic and thematic imagining, something fresh and compelling, rather than a thin, been-there-read-that shell that exists merely as a vehicle for your brilliant sentences. Which, in that league, are the ante in, such skill is as common as footspeed and strength is at an NFL Combine pre-draft tryout.

This all came up during lunch with a writer friend. 

Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the topic (my friend, her sister, and my wife… I was out-numbered) brought up the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars, the kind where all the women look like they’re vying for a spot on The Housewives of Scottsdale, and the men like the buzz cut, cheesy golf shirt wearing guys they’re married to.

The talk focused on a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at such a famous night spot for the past decade. A woman beloved by all who have washed their dainty hands there after reapplying lipstick. Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she has heard. 

She, it was offered, should write a book. Which led to… hey Larry, there’s a novel in that! You should write this!

Like, I didn’t have enough rusty ideas kicking around in my head.

And then, like any author worth his printer ink, the “what if?” descended on the table like a bird dropping: what if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard? About someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, saying and doing things that shouldn’t be said and done? And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who might have heard too much?

Like, in the bathroom, for example.

Approval was immediate. Because — let’s call it what it was — they weren’t the ones who had to to turn this turkey of an “idea” into a novel.

We brainstormed for a while, taking it through the First Act to a proposed first plot point, at which time the food arrived and we turned to other things. Like why some writers drink and others simply go mad.

On the way home my wife asks me, “so, are you going to write that story?”

I didn’t have to think about it.  My answer was a firm, no-looking-back, no.

I didn’t have to run away from it to be sure. As sure as I have been every time someone pitches me the idea of, “hey, you should write a story about someone who is born old and ages… backward!” An idea I’ve heard put forth at least a half dozen times.

Bad ideas are just that. Because they’re too easy, too obvious, and too done to death.

Story ideas are just that, and nothing more.

They are aromas, not food. Promises, not deliveries. Seeds, not gardens. And if the flower isn’t something that floats your boat, then the seed is better off as bird food.

One of the great pitfalls of newer writers opens wide when you sit down and try to write an idea that is only an idea, without having sprouted the wings of a story, and too often, don’t have wings to sprout after all.

Ideas – especially in the form of “what if?” – acquire true value when they open doors (rather than yawning pits) to something more substantive than whodunit gratification. When they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide into the things that matter in a novel.

Ideas should scare the crap out of you, more than they tickle at first blush. Or at least, excite you to the point of an enduring, informed obsession. When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion, vetted in context to an awareness of the higher criteria of story – conceptual allure, dramatic tension and arc, emotional resonance, hero empathy, vicarious experience, and a fresh way to tell the story… now you’re on to something

That’s the story you should write.

I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, or for the dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story. I admit, I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars – and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting – but who am I to write this story?

Not that you have to have lived every story you tell. But at least you should want to have lived some form of it. Want it beyond that first glimpse of it. Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the check-out line at Costco.

It happens. It hardly ever ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.

The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the dramatic landscape across which the story will unfold.

And that’s the question a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously. What floats your boat, each and every time something like this has crossed your mind?

This crystallized for me one morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show (Alcatraz), in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island 50 years ago are showing up in present day San Francisco, and they are killing people. They’ve traveled through time. They might be ghosts. But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and these time-traveling killers must be found and stopped.

Now that interested me. Both on a “what if?” level, and on a time-tested passion level. I wish I’d thought of it. Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of… and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.

Come to think of it, the idea hit me in the checkout line at Costco. And it’s chased me ever since.

Don’t jump too fast at your what ifs.”

Develop stories from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiosity and passion, a place where thematic issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the dramatic as much as it informs any characters you can place within it.

Write the story you should be writing.

Which is an even better writing this than… run.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

10 thoughts on “When “What if?” Isn’t Enough

  1. At Left Coast Crime, Jonathan Kellerman said he keeps a computer file of his ideas, prints it out, and locks it in his safe. He also pointed out there’s no way he could ever turn a fraction of those into books, simply because of the time factor. I think he had over 700 ideas. (Lee Goldberg, panel moderator, quipped, “Note to self. Break into Jonathan Kellerman’s safe.”)

  2. Right, Larry…and Terry…and Jonathan. Get those ideas down, one or two lines, then let them sit. The persistent ones will rise to the top. But that’s only the first step in the development process.

  3. Your example of a woman overhearing something in a bathroom made me think of this:

    What if a young boy in a public bathroom stall overhears three bad guys arguing and two of the bad guy kills the third?

    Meh…

    What if the “bad guys” are really cops?

    Okay…but I’ve read this before.

    What if another detective is assigned to the case and after the boy IDs one of the bad guys as a cop, the detective is ambushed in a parking garage?

    Better…the hero is now in danger.

    And what if the little boy is Amish and the wounded detective takes the boy back to Amish country for his protection but the detective has to hide out there himself until he can figure out what is going on?

    Really good. It was the top rate cop thriller “Witness.”

    As you say, Larry, not every “what if” is fertile enough to bear plot. But sometimes, if you can stick with a “what if” and make it fresh, it can work.

  4. What if I staged the Kennedy Assassination, the whole WWII-with-the-original-cast thing, setting up Lee, the guys on the grass knoll, the shooter behind the fence, the changing-wound-size scenario, the presidential limousine shooter with the nickel-plated .45 pistol, the shooting of Patrolman Tippett, putting the guy in the sewer, negotiated with the space aliens to get some guys there, set up Jack Ruby to kill Lee, arranged to get Jack Ruby injected with live cancer cells, Mrs. Kennedy climbing onto the trunk-lid trying to retrieve the President’s skull parts, lunging the Secret Service convertible to throw rookie agent forward with his finger on the trigger of the automatic weapon to accidentally shoot the president, so that I could . . .

    . . . marry Marine Oswald because she was a drop-dead gorgeous woman . . .

    . . . or so I would have enough time and distraction to kidnap LBJ, get rid of him and replace him with a faux LBJ who was incapable of winning the Vietnam war . . .

    . . . or I had a $20 bet that I, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court could get people to forget that I was the guy who paved the way for the interning of Japanese-American citizens . . .

    . . . or, . . . or . . .

    Nah. Too much.

    But in there somewhere, there’s a story.

  5. I’m so relieved to read this. I’ve been brainstorming a book idea, and cycling through iteration after iteration because the first eight were garbage. It has to grip me or it won’t grip the reader. I’m also warily looking at a book I’ve already drafted, because I’m afraid that it goes off the rails.
    So idea iteration is a thing! I’ll keep at it, then. Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. A friend of mine wrote a lot of stories and even novels, but couldn’t get anything published. She asked for my advice.

    I read enough of her material to know that it didn’t sing… not one bit. I was bored, despite her obvious knowledge of story structure.

    I also knew her well enough to know what she was passionate about, what she feared, what made her angry, what she dreamed about… and not a single one of the stories or manuscripts dealt with any of those elements.

    Why?

    Because she was afraid, especially of the negative elements (e.g., horrible parenting, growing up in a “closed” community, etc.)

    I couldn’t understand how someone could produce so many decent words and sentences (her words and sentences were fine) without being passionate about the subject matter. I’d get bored in a minute; writing would be consistently a chore.

    So we talked about her passions, and I tried my best to get her to dig deep into the “what-ifs” of her passions.

    No success… fear keeps holding her back.

  7. It’s precisely that What if? that interests me with the new show, Timeless. What if Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells were friends? And what if Jack steals his time machine and travels to the future where he continues his reign of terror? And what if H.G. follows him to stop the murders and bring him back to the past to face justice? I watched the first episode, and it didn’t disappoint. Wish I thought of it.

    Hope you’re doing well, my friend. 🙂

  8. I know you believe story arc trumps good writing most of the time, but honestly, Larry, over the last five or six years I have read you for your metaphors as much as for your ideas. Fun and funny and fresh.

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