Friday, January 16, 2009

The "What If?" and the "But If?" In Writing

I've been doing some thinking about things I've learned in my writing journey. A couple of these important lessons are the "what if?" and the "but if?" concepts. Let me explain.

The "what if?" is the nidus of every novel ever written. I heard this early on from one of the masters, Alton Gansky, who told his class he kept a file of "what if?" questions. Those questions were the basis for his novels. For example, "what if the entire population of a secret military installation suddenly disappeared?" Far-fetched? Not to Al. He turned that simple "what if?" into Vanished.

My first novel was the result of a conversation with editor Gary Terashita. At my first writers' conference, Gary discovered that I was, like him, a baseball fan. When he found out that I'd played semi-pro baseball and had attended a number of major league fantasy camps, he threw out an offhand remark: "Why don't you write a novel about a doctor who's a failed baseball player?" Okay, so what if a guy drops out of pre-med to play baseball, doesn't make it, then after getting his degree he gets another chance and has to make a choice between the career he wanted and the one he has? I wrote it and it garnered a lot of "almosts." I still have it on my computer, and someday I plan to rework it and try again. But "what if?" is a useful tool for authors of fiction. Since finding a unique hook is one of the hardest parts of writing for me, I still struggle with my "what if?"

Then there's the "but if?" view. I had this drilled into me by Jeff Gerke when he was a fiction editor at NavPress. I sat down at Mount Hermon to pitch my novel to Jeff, who proceeded to drive me crazy by continuing to ask, "But what if he doesn't get what he wants? What's at stake?" It took me a long time to learn the lesson Jeff was trying to teach. There's always got to be conflict at the heart of a novel, that what drives it is the other fork in the road, the "but if this or that doesn't happen, what's at stake?"

Later, editor Steve Barclift pointed me to the book, The Writer's Journey, by Vogler, which does a great job of comparing the arc of a modern novel with a mythic journey. The "but if?" corresponds to the prize at the end of the hero's quest in mythology and the enemy/peril he has to overcome. And as I read novel after novel, I was amazed to find that analogy holding true.
In my later work, I've made sure that there are two things--a prize and a peril. That's the important fork in the road, the "but if?"

These are a couple of lessons I've learned along my road to writing. I plan to post more later. Meanwhile, feel free to let me know the lessons you've found most helpful in your own writing journey.


Rachelle said...

Excellent post, Richard.

Rachel said...

Always a good reminder, Richard. Thanks! You wouldn't believe how often I need a refresher course on these topics.

Myra Johnson said...

I'd forgotten about your baseball connection, Doc! It reminded me that my current allergy doctor has all kinds of baseball photos hanging in her exam room. Must be some strange connection between noses and baseball that I just haven't figured out yet!

Rachelle said...

Excellent post, Richard.