"What if?" That has got to be the greatest question in the english language. It is at the heart of all stories, and is a great jumping off point for the imagination. Most of my stories begin with a what if question.
My current manuscript was birthed out of one such question eight years ago. I was sitting in my wife’s room on the maternity ward a few days after she’d given birth to our first-born. That morning I’d been reading the story of the tower of babel in my Bible. We all know it. God confused the languages. People got into tribes and spread out across the earth. As I thought about this, a question pop into my head. What if one of those tribes actually left the planet. What if they had travelled into space and colonised another world. I'm a nerd so I think about questions like that sometimes. This gave a jumping-off point to start developing the mythology for my world’s back story, although the end result has become something a little different than what they first question led me to.
Fast forward a couple of years, and my daughter is no longer a baby, but a little girl who loves princesses. To me, Chloe was my little princess, and still is. I think all fathers of girls believe their daughters are princesses. Suddenly another ‘what if’ question appeared in my head - what if it were really true? What if my daughter really was a princess? Obviously I'm not a king, so what would that mean? This became the basis for my protagonist.
The cool thing about ‘what if’ questions is that they naturally lead to more 'what if' questions. That initial thought about princesses led me down an interesting path. What if there was a monarchist society that sent the first-born heir away to be raised in secret by ordinary people, so that when he or she took the throne, they’d know the everyday struggles of their subjects, and not just the life of privilege enjoyed by royalty. What if this custom came about after a revolt against a previous dynasty that mistreated and abused the poor. What if there was a father who adopted this special child, loved her, all the while knowing that someday she would leave him and become queen. What if she grew up happily ignorant of all of this, just to discover one day that she is the hidden heir that everyone is talking about?
Sometimes these ideas don’t so much lead to other ‘what if’ questions, but rather refining questions. My initial thought about the tower of babel got my little gray cells working. How did these people in the early days of genesis have the technology to travel to other worlds, and why did we lose that ability?
What a fun and creative way to brainstorm a story. Some of the questions that come to you will be dead ends, but that’s okay. These types of question are particularly handy for world-building in a sci-fi or fantasy situation but I think they are equally useful for other genres. I'm looking forward to doing this in a more conscious way in the future. Who knows what I might end up with.
What are some of your favourite ‘what if’ questions from story premises (either as a writer or a reader)?
Adam Collings is a writer of speculative fiction and video blogger. He is actively working toward becoming a published author. He lives in Tasmania, Australia. Adam discusses books and movies on his youTube series Stories. You can find Adam on-line at collingszone.wordpress.com or his Google+ Profile