The ‘What If’ Question

As a writer, you often hear how the “What If” question can elevate your writing; how if you’re not asking and answering that question during your writing process, you’re not tapping into your full potential.

And I agree! Reading about the “What If” question and how to use it made it sound not only essential, but easy! Ask yourself “What If This Happens Instead of That” or “What IF So-And-So Was Actually Not What He Seemed”, and your answers might surprise you, and lead your story in a whole new direction. (Which, I believe, may also be a cure for ‘writer’s block’.)

Not to mention the fact that it should help with can almost be your premise sentence.

But, and bear with me, What If the “What If” question stumps you? What If it actually stops you writing?

I bought a book online to help me organize my plot and outline, because my plan was to write a novel. And this book was really good! So helpful—step by step, clear explanations, solid examples, etc. But I only got half way through. Because I was trying to follow along, building my story at the same time as I was reading, so I would have a solid base when I sat down to write. And then: the “What If” question happened.

My notebook became filled with pages and pages of random “What Ifs” touching various aspects of the ideas I did have, but not helping further these ideas in any way.

After a while, I put the book down and closed my notebook, feeling overwhelmed, and considering I was not writer material after all.

Never a quitter, I joined a Creative Writing Workshop, and with the poetry, examples, and prompts the teacher gives us, I’ve started doing a lot more writing. And this week, the “What If” question finally clicked.

I’m writing a poem about a lemon with a hangover (long story, don’t ask). I already had a whole bunch of fantastic ideas for my poem, and I knew where it would start and where it would end. Since I am in the building stage, any idea goes, and I just write, and work on elevating the words and ideas to a higher level. One idea had the lemon slices being the babies of the lemon, and as I developed that, I realized I’d made my lemon into a female.

Suddenly, I wrote “WHAT IF the lemon is actually a male?” And holy cow! On and on my ideas went, and now I know how to write the middle bits. The story I’m telling in the poem will be funnier, stronger, and will hold the rest of the poem together better. My direction is clear.


So, my advice to you, and I think what I’ve tried to say is, although the “What If” question is important in illuminating your path, I think (at least some times) you have to already have basic knowledge of your direction for the famed “What If” to make your ideas really shine.

Perhaps, if you’re writing a short story or a novel, you can write down your whole concept, from beginning to end (this might be just a couple of paragraphs if you’re just starting), and then start asking yourself “What If”. Essentially, you ask this question to enhance your ideas, your plot, your little twists. And your answers to that question may alter the direction of your initial concept, or help to add the bumps along the way.

“What If” is a tool, like a flashlight.
It can only show you the gritty details
if you have something to point it at.

I realize this approach might put off the writing of your premise sentence, but (especially if you’re a beginner), I think it’s more important to keep writing than to be stumped on something you can’t quite grasp, just so you can say you did it all perfectly the first time.

Did that make sense?

If you’ve struggled with “What If”, or if it immediately worked for you, I’d love to hear about how you got it to work for you!

Image source: azzurodesign @ pixabay.


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