Monday, September 16, 2013

What If?

"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 CollingsAdam 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 or his Google+ Profile


  1. Great food for thought, Adam.
    My question at the moment is, 'What if Christ's church would follow all of Paul's advice? What would it look like?'
    Enjoy your little princess...she will grow up far too quickly :)

    1. That's really interesting Margaret. I hadn't considered how 'what if' questions apply to non-fiction, but you're right, it's just the same.

  2. Great way to get the imagination stirring, Adam.

    Thanks for sharing one of your tips.

  3. I think my 'what if' questions happen as the plot of a novel unfolds and I ask myself 'What if I have the hero do this?' or 'What if my heroine chooses to do that?' And if he or she DOES, then what could possibly happen THEN?! And so on and so on! What fun writers have!

    1. As a heavy outliner I tend to ask my what if questions up front, but as you point out they can crop up during the writing of the story, and can throw some very interesting new ideas in the mix. Great fun.

  4. Adam, I enjoyed the mention of your 'little grey cells',a la Hercule Poirot! It must be a lot of fun to write in the speculative genre. You make the rules for your own universe.

    Oh, those interminable 'what ifs'! They wake me at night. Still that's usually when the best ideas pop in. I appreciate them most when I think I've come to a dead end and they come to my rescue.

    1. My wife is a big Agatha Cristie fan, and we just had a murder mystery night for her birthday. It sure is a lot of fun in the speculative genre.

  5. Great post Adam and I do agree that there is much in those 2 little words 'what if' that can lead us into many an interesting journey and write many an interesting book!

    Margaret's good 'what if' question pointed me to that kind of direction - 'What if all Christians really believed what Jesus said and acted on it'! My mind boggles at the implications. So thanks Adam and thanks Margaret. That leads me to say 'What if I really believed every promise in the Bible' and lived the way I believed? Perhaps that's God's challenge to me today!

    1. Some really challenging questions coming out of these comments. It's great. Thanks Anusha.

  6. A very interesting process you followed to create your novel, Adam. I wondered if you had heard any of Ian Clayton's teaching? You have a 'grid' already for the revelation he extracts from scripture. Google him for fun and further 'what ifs'! There are 2 Ian Claytons - you want the NZealander. Blessings.

  7. Some great "what ifs" Adam - thank you. My fantasy series started with a dream that didn't want to end come morning and keep on growing into characters, plots and settings in day dreams thereafter. Stories continued to come as I asked "why is this character like this? Why would he/she do that or be like that?" but I'm sure I asked "what ifs" along the way as well. It's certainly a great question.

  8. That's pretty cool that you got an idea out of a dream. My dreams are usually too absurd to get anything useful out of - if I remember them.

  9. Adam, you've reminded me of Stan Lee's comic book "What if", that allowed the comic book writers to leave the Marvel universe and explore!


    What is the meaning of calling on the name of the Lord? Many assume that believing in Jesus and saying a form of a sinner's prayer constitutes, calling on the name of the Lord. The problem with that theory is none of the conversions under the New Covenant support that assumption. Not one time is anyone ever told to believe and say the sinner's prayer in order to be saved.

    The apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost quoted the prophet Joel, Acts 2:21 And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (NKJV)

    The apostle Peter preached the first gospel sermon under the New Covenant. Peter did not tell the 3000 converts to believe and say the sinner's prayer.

    Peter preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He preached Jesus as both Lord and Christ. When they heard this they asked Peter and the rest of the brethren what they should do?(Acts 2:22-37) Peter told them what to do. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(NKJV)

    How did the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost call on the name of the Lord and become saved?
    1. They believed that Jesus was both Lord and Christ.
    2. They believed that God raised Jesus from the grave.
    3. They repented. Repentance is a change of heart. Repentance means to be converted so that God may forgive your sins. Repentance is to make the intellectual commitment to turn from sin and turn toward God. (Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38)
    4. They were immersed in water (baptized) so that their sins could be forgiven.

    How did the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost not call on the name of the Lord?
    1. They did not say a sinner's prayer.
    2. Not one person was asked to pray for forgiveness.
    3. Not one single man was told to be baptized as a testimony of his faith.
    4. No one was told that water baptism was a just an act of obedience.
    5. No one was informed they were saved the very minute they believed.
    6. Not one person was told that water baptism was not essential for the forgiveness of sins.
    7. Not one person was told to be baptized so they could join a denominational church.

    Jesus said he that believes and is baptized shall be saved. (Mark 16"16) Jesus did not say he who believes and says a sinner's prayer shall be saved.


  11. I love that question, Adam! 'What if?' It's the same question that sparked the premise behind my YA novel 'Integrate'. In that case, 'What if science could ...?' It can be such fun to let our imagination take flight on some of those passing thoughts that drop into our heads occasionally. Looking forward to hearing more about your writing.