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:
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.