The Power of “What If” to Turn Any Idea into a Story

Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius is a great book for aspiring writers. This blog post has been crafted based on her ideas.

The moment a story idea strikes can be both incredibly motivating and incredibly frustrating. That gem hits and suddenly you can’t wait to write. You clear your schedule, silence your phone, and begin. But then…oh no…no…the story starts to wilt. you can feel it, you can taste it, you know it. Then comes searing frustration, failing confidence, declarations never to write again. But what if I tell you there’s a way to keep this from happening?

It’s called the Power of What If.

Let’s think about the history of storytelling. Back then, the world was a big scary place full of big scary events that often happened without warning. How did we fledgling humans cope with such a frightening, unpredictable place? We made up stories.

Stories allowed us to envision a future and, more importantly, envision a way to deal with that future. Story evolved as a way of coping with the “what ifs” of this crazy world.

So it’s only natural that many of our story ideas start out as “what ifs”. What if a boy and a girl from competing families fall in love? What if the world’s water supply suddenly runs out? Each event is surprising and unexpected, which is good because our brains are hardwired to notice and react to surprises. This is how we’ve survived as long as we have. But the surprise–the what if–doesn’t in itself make a story. What makes a story is what you layer on top of that What If.

Stories have to matter.

To make a story resonate with your readers, stories have to have meaning. And to give a story meaning, the events that happen have to matter to the characters in that story. Why does it matter if the Romeo and Juliet are in love? Why does it matter if the world’s water evaporates in an instant? Therein lies the crux to shaping that kernel of an idea into something more.

Your plot must focus not on the big, surprising event, but on the effect that event has on a specific person, or persons. Once you’ve asked yourself “what if”, follow it up with “what’s your point?” What point are you trying to make through this big, external event? This will help you pinpoint the heart of the story, which is the source of your protagonist’s internal conflict.

Romeo and Juliet: it matters because love is powerful enough to unite two families and stop the bloodshed. Or, alternatively, revenge has far-reaching (and sometimes tragic) consequences.

Thirst: it matters because it forces us to question our humanity and to what depths we’ll sink to survive.

Steps from What If to Full-Fledged Story

Let’s take a look at the steps involved:

1) The idea

This is your big idea, your big “what if.”

2) Why do you, and subsequently your readers, care about this big “What If?”

This is what will make your seed-story resonate with your readers. It’s the source of your main character’s conflict. In other words, the conflict inherent in “What If” triggers the internal conflict, which becomes your story. To help come up with why this matters, you can ask yourself what you want the readers to come away with. What overarching lesson or viewpoint do you want to espouse by telling this story? In Harry Potter, JK Rowling wanted to espouse the power of love, of friendship, of loyalty.

3) Layer your “what if.”

Take your seed on an idea, armed with your thoughts on why this is important, frost it with your point, the conflicts and the consequences of those conflicts, and you’ve got the start of a satisfying story!

For more, please see Story Genius by Lisa Cron. And tell me other ways you germinate ideas!

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