I recently visited a Summer Youth Camp run by the Penn State Lehigh Valley faculty. During my presentation, I shared a bit about my own writing process, to include some ideas about where ideas come from. Where do writers get their ideas? Do they order them from a small, family-owned business in Des Moines, Iowa? No, of course not…or do we? One of the items on my list of “where ideas come from” (not Des Moines – sorry, Iowa) is my favorite question: What if?
What if? What a great and creative question. After my presentation, one of the facilitators mentioned how much that one question resonated with her. As a middle-school teacher, she is constantly trying to find new ways to introduce creative writing approaches to her students. What if?, she said, was a wonderful way to get them writing and thinking about things in a new and exciting way.
What if…when you left this assembly, you found the rest of the building made entirely of Jell-O? Of course, the kids giggle and get excited. What if…when your parents came to pick you up, they weren’t driving their car, but riding on the backs of giant dragonflies? Eyes get wide, kids start oohing and aahing. What if…when you turned on your television later tonight, the screen showed you your future in 10, 20, 30 years? It blows their minds. That question, I tell them, can generate countless stories.
What if? is an absolute gem for creating a story spark. Whether you’re looking for a creative writing exercise prompt, a short story spark, or the idea for your next book. What if apes became hyper-intelligent and fought against captivity? Hello, Planet of the Apes. What if someone were able to genetically recreate dinosaurs from DNA trapped in mosquitoes in amber? Hello, Jurassic Park. What if the U.S. built a giant wall around the entire country…and the zombie apocalypse started in New York? That’s just frightening.
At nErDCampNJ, author Henry Neff mentioned that What if? is a great way to approach world building. Take one or more of the S.P.R.I.T.E. categories (Society, Politics, Religion, Ideas/Culture, Technology, and Economy) and tweak it with What if? For example, What if artificial intelligence grew so smart that it became self aware and considered humanity a virus in need of cleansing? Hello, Terminator. What if, instead of money, we bought, sold, and traded for things with minutes from our life – people give up (or gain) minutes, days, months, years…that car will cost you two years and three months at your current credit score. A gallon of milk costs 26 seconds.
What if? is also good for turning tropes upside down. We’re always looking for fresh ways to spin the norm, right? No, this is not a nod to “alternative facts”. Consider the sweet, elderly librarian; complete with bifocals and a grey bun. But What if she were actually the High Priestess of a cult dedicated to opening a rift that would usher in creatures of unspeakable horror? What if that sword-wielding, muscle-bound barbarian fainted at the sight of blood? What if the werewolf were a vegetarian?
So, you see, there is quite a lot you can do with those two words, that one, simple question. What if?
What if this question was the inspiration for your next big idea? It just might be. Happy writing, friends!
Joe McGee is the author of the picture books Peanut Butter & Brains (Abrams, 2015) and Peanut Butter & Aliens (Abrams, 2017), which comes out August 29th. He earned his Master of Arts in Writing degree at Rowan University and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe teaches creative writing at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, and is on the faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program, Writing for Children and Young Adults track in Lake Tahoe, NV. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, an avid board and role-playing game gamer, and a consummate daydreamer. You can visit him at http://www.joemcgeeauthor.com or follow him on Twitter @mcgeejp and Instagram at joemcgeeauthor.