Your Magnificent “What If” Muscle

by James Scott Bell

I’ve often thought of the imagination as a muscle. With proper care and exercise, it gets stronger. Leave it alone, and it atrophies.

For fiction writers, the imagination is our stock-in-trade. The healthier it is, the more likely the production of fresh, original writing.

One of the best exercises for the imagination is the “What if” game. Through daily practice you train yourself to ask “What if X?” in response to the stimuli—usually visual—that come your way in an ordinary day.

You’re driving and come to a stoplight. What appears to be an elderly woman pushing a shopping cart stuffed with belongings enters the crosswalk. Are things just as they appear? Probably. But not to your creative mind! So you ask:

What if there’s a bomb in that shopping cart?

What if the lady is the heiress of a large fortune, but went insane? Or was driven insane?

What if it is really a man in disguise and he’s on the down low because a contract has been put out on him?

The light turns green and off you go, letting the ideas simmer in your brain.

You pass a billboard of a happy family—smiling dad and mom, two laughing kids—at a theme park. Happy to most people, maybe. But:

What if Dad is a hit man on the side?

What if Mom is the assassin-for-hire?

What if one of the kids is an alien?

Two minutes have gone by and you already have six or seven ideas.

If you’re diligent about this exercise, your imagination muscle will churn all the time, often without conscious thought. Then the issue won’t be, Where do I find my next idea? but, How do I choose from all the great ideas my imagination has already provided?

As I look back at my own books, I think I can safely say that most of the ideas sprang from a What if conjecture. Sometimes that was the product of just sitting down and telling myself to come up with something. Several times it was me riffing off some odd news item.

Like an L.A. story that haunted me for a few years. A man shot his wife, drove to a freeway overpass, got out of his car and shot himself. He fell 100 feet onto the freeway below. His body smashed into a car, killing the driver, a woman.

I clipped the story from the newspaper and put it in my “idea box,” where I kept all sorts of clippings. Every now and then I’d look through the box to see what still interested me. This incident always did. Finally one day I asked myself, What if the woman in the car was my protagonist’s fiancé? I sat down and wrote an opening, in First Person POV, that ended with this:

This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two-minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. Eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.

But the story did not go away. Not for me. Because Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.

Try Dying took off from there.

Here’s another one.

Years ago I got an email out of the blue from a fellow I knew in high school. It had been nearly thirty years since we’d communicated, and even back then he wasn’t a close friend. He said he’d found my website and saw I was a writer and thought it would be good to get together, and could he buy me coffee?

Unfair as it may have been, my immediate thoughts were: a) he has always “dreamed of” being a writer, and thinks I can help him; b) he has written a novel and can I help him find an agent?; or c) he’d like to tell me about Herbalife. My What if muscle was flexing, and went to: What if this guy wanted to do something to me? Or to my family? And why?

We spent a perfectly harmonious hour together, and that was that. Or so I thought.

It just so happened that about this time I re-read one of my favorite John D. MacDonald novels, The Executioners (basis for the Cape Fear movies, the original with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum being the best). Talk about a spiral of suspense!

That’s when I knew I had my next novel. I wanted that spiral! My novel would be about a guy from the past who contacted my family-man protagonist for a friendly get together, but then…

The book was published by Zondervan and hit the CBA bestseller list. Now it’s back in indie iteration as Can’t Stop Me. What if it launches today at a special deal price? We shall see!

So are you intentional about asking What if? What do you do to work out your imagination muscle? How to you decide what book you want to write next?

39 thoughts on “Your Magnificent “What If” Muscle

  1. I love playing what if. I notice I’ve done so less lately. Perhaps because some of the things I’ve seen happen in real life are stranger than fiction, I dunno.

    Most frequently, those what if moments come while doing historical research. Your mind can’t help but explode with ideas while you do. I just have to remember to write them down when they occur–otherwise I lose them.

    • You’re right about writing things down, BK. Even just a line or two. You never know how they’ll strike you later on. It’s good to have a record.

    • Ha. I was definitely soaking in visuals of the Beverly Hills Hotel. It would have been rude of me to spend too much time what-iffing as we talked, but I did notice a power couple of few tables away. The man wore shades, and I couldn’t help thinking, What if he was a criminal mastermind? Or a movie producer? (Or maybe those two are the same thing…)

    • Invaluable, those notebooks. People often ask me how I come up with an idea for a book. I tell them I have so many ideas I’ll never get to a fraction of them in this lifetime.

  2. So are you intentional about asking What if?
    I don’t go searching for What ifs? They pop into my mind on their own.

    What do you do to work out your imagination muscle?
    Write every day. On a day off, I sneak in an hour or two in the early morning before my husband gets up. 😉

    How to you decide what book you want to write next?
    I’m concentrating on my Mayhem Series, so that’s easy. Deciding where to send my characters and why is trickier. Like you, I keep a list of ideas (What if?) & complications (But) on my phone.

    • Good use of current technology, Sue. If I want to capture an idea while I’m away from my computer, I use my phone to get into Google Docs.

      Re: settings, I have the same challenge with my Mike Romeo series. Most of the time it’s set in Los Angeles, but occasionally he goes elsewhere. I’ve made up a desert town, and I’m currently making up a Southern California burg, which allows for flexibility. But in real places I have to do on the spot research. Good thing I enjoy it.

  3. Great post, Jim. Great questions.

    “What if?” pops up in my brain all the time; I don’t have to go looking for it. I focus most on those that are related to my everyday surroundings and knowledge base. When one of the ideas seems particularly promising, I grab a pen and paper and start mind mapping and then start expanding the idea to see if it could really work. I’m trying to finish a young adult series, but two adult suspense series are beckoning rather strongly. It may be time to shift gears.

    I hope your weekend is filled with a bucket full of what ifs.

    • I’m glad you mentioned mind mapping, Steve. That’s a great way to visualize What ifs. I’m doing that right now plotting out the villain’s story for my next book.

  4. Garry Rodgers recently posted on tchotchkes in his office that inspired ideas. His piece reminded me of how admiring an ancient iron key on the shelf over my laptop led me to wonder if it opened the door to a haunted house. I developed that idea into my latest sale, coming out this year.

  5. Great post, Jim. I don’t deliberately play the game of What-If, it just happens as I move through my days, spinning scenarios about people and situations I encounter. Writing down what-ifs is a terrific idea. Ideas for novels, for me, usually come as part of a series, which means those ideas need to stew for a while, maybe quite a while. I’m currently working on Book Drop Dead, book 2 in my Meg Booker series, but other series are bubbling on the back burners of my imagination.

    Congratulations on your latest release! My Kindle pre-order came through last night.

    • I love that metaphor, Dale. Bubbling on the back burners. In fact, I have a separate file for ideas I want to develop from my what ifs. And I actually have it labeled “Front Burner Concepts.”

      Thanks for the order. Enjoy!

  6. Jim, this is so true! My imagination/subconscious/muse/whatever is my strongest muscle. If only I could get it to open a stubborn pickle jar…wait a sec, that could be the idea for a story about telekinesis, right?

  7. Not exactly “what if” but when people tell me interesting tidbits about their lives or the lives of their families, I go off into “how can I use this in a book” mode. I usually have 3 to 5 story ideas rolling around in my brain at the same time.
    Great article! Hope to see you again at a writers conference in the future.

    • Those tidbits make for great backstory, don’t they, Jane? I love hearing about the quirks and argot of professions or hobbies I know little about.

  8. What if I order Can’t Stop Me? The premise sounds fantastic and maybe it’ll give me an idea for my own next book. ==Click==

    I love the idea of imagination as a muscle. Since I began to write novels, I find my imagination is in the heavy-lifting “what if” mode most of the time. Whether it’s reading a news story or driving around doing errands, there’s a lot to wonder about.

  9. Great post, Jim. For me, I have a folder on the computer called “story ideas,” and I regularly put stuff in there, usually screen grabs or what-have-you. And yes, I have backups for the computer. 😉

    Happy 4 Days Past Solstice!

    • Screen grabs are a good idea, Harald. Thanks for that.

      Scrivener has a function where you can import web pages and clippings quite easily. I utilize that a lot on specific projects for research and the like.

  10. Great post, Jim! I love playing “what if”.

    My latest journey is with a WIP I’m titling The Woodshop.

    A year or so ago, a young girl popped into my imagination room. I couldn’t see her face, but she was running for all she was worth. She came to a broken down stone wall and disappeared through a breach. But as I watched (I think I was sitting in my lawn chair out on our front porch), she stopped mid-breach, scanned the area quickly, then placed her hand on the broken part of the wall. It looked to me like a caress. Then she was gone.

    My imagination walked to the broken wall and looked into the opening. I saw immediately what she’d caressed. It was a crude drawing of a fish. As I stared, I heard a commotion behind me. It was a crowd of Roman soldiers, running toward me.

    I skedaddled.

    When I opened my eyes, back on the lawn chair, I had the beginning and ending scenes of the novel fixed in my head. They are both written, plus a bit more, roughly 6k. Now I just need the rest of her story.

    It started with “why did she touch the wall in that spot?”. All I had to do was follow her to find out.

    Happy Sunday!

  11. ❖ Are you intentional about asking What if?
    ❦ Yes. I have a large lab notebook where I’ve listed dozens of wotif situations. I also put the best ones in a file on my crunchatron. One entry was: wotif a therapist discovers during a session that the client is a murderer and has the weapon with him? My inner Carl Jung demanded to be the therapist; only Hitler would do for the client. I discovered during my research that Hitler’s niece/mistress was found shot in a locked room in 1931. Did Hitler do kill her in a rit of fealous jage? This led to Wotif there was a fourth passenger in Hitler’s Mercedes cabriolet on the way to Nuremberg?

    ❖ What do you do to work out your imagination muscle?
    ❦ Brainstorming on any subject, I’ve discovered, will put my imagination on full alert and keep it there up to 30 minutes afterward. There are prompts on Twit-World. Most are depressingly turgid, but a challenging few stand out.

    ❖ How do you decide what book you want to write next?
    ❦ The Boys in the Sub-Basement, aka The Guardienne, will let me know what’s at the top of their list. That’s what I should write.

  12. Oh man, the best place in the world to play the what if game is the emergency room. I was stuck in there with my daughter with a minor yet concerning ailment. Since it wasn’t life-threatening, they left us to sit there for four hours. Sitting there, you stare at the other people and try to guess what’s wrong with them and if you’re in danger sitting within ten feet of them. Then some loudmouth guy got up and started arguing with the nurses that he should be allowed to see his lab results. “I am the CEO of a biotech firm in CA, I am smart enough to understand my own results!” And I’m sitting there going, *Why are you sitting in a dingy emergency room in Tucson, AZ?* Oh, the fiction begins writing itself …

  13. This isn’t exactly a what-if but when I was a kid we lived near the Memphis airport and planes flew right over our house after takeoff. Every day I made up stories about the people I imagine on the plane. I still do that, but it’s not limited to planes. Cars, buses, people walking past me…
    All of my stories started out with a “what if.”

  14. So are you intentional about asking What if?
    Only when I’m writing and get stuck. It goes along with, Why am I stuck? What am I not facing? Where is the work I need to do?

    What do you do to work out your imagination muscle?
    It’s spontaneous – something happens – my mind starts writing a little story about why or who or what next. Maybe because I’ve always been the outlier in the group (for good reasons), seeing something happen and not knowing what comes next generates me making something up.

    How to you decide what book you want to write next?
    That I don’t know. I started the mainstream trilogy I’ve been writing for twenty-three years because it jumped into my lap when a set of prompts from completely different streams stuck to each other. I asked myself, How do celebrities decide who to marry – and how do some of those stick? Who is left out of the process – and what if they weren’t? The answer was partly: you can’t fall in love with someone you never meet – how would you subvert that problem for a difficult case – someone who almost never left home?

    When, in about five years, I’ve finished the half-million word trilogy making that plausible, I have NO idea what will come next. Nothing has come sniffing around in all these years.

  15. The late Harry Crews relates that on the sharecropper farm he grew up on there wasn’t any reading material except the Sears catalog, so he and his boyhood friend would spend hours leafing through the catalog and making up stories about the people in the pictures.

    So there are these two kids giving free rein to their imaginations, together.

    I’ve got to practice “what iffing” more and generate more stuff. I reckon the secret to ramping up my “what iffing”is to use “what if?” as a prefix to everything I’m looking at.

    Interestingly, I’m sitting here looking out my window at a house across this quiet suburban Iowa street and the mailbox in front of it. I know the guy works for the IRS.

    What if there’s bomb in the mailbox? Who put it there? Why?

    And off we go.

    As always thanks for this interesting and informative post, JSB. Maybe you could work up one of your wonderful craft books strictly on the subject and practice of “what iffing.”?
    I’d be the first to buy it.

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