In all of the English language, no two words personify hope and the unexpected as What If. These 2 words form the basis for most if not almost all stories we hold near and dear to our hearts. It is a very prolific technique for exploring a new idea for a novel, screenplay, poem, prose and any other form where words dominate. Personally, I like to ask the What If? question for any point in my life where I had to make a decision that formed the iconic fork in the road. What if I had not married her? What if I hadn’t left this college? What if I had not finished college, what might I have done? Given the way life went, what if I had pursued my true dream instead of the safe path I actually followed?
What if can also be applied to purely fictional enterprises like What if our legal system was more of a lottery than a process. In other words, you are accused, they roll the dice which determines guilt, innocents and the length of your prison term as well as the fine? It would certainly even out the demographics in our prison system but certainly add a new level of anxiety to the justice process. So what if your job interviews were decided in the same way? Education, experience and knowledge no longer matter. Your future is determined by chance. Extrapolating this even further, what if your college admission, home mortgage and doctors and hospitals were by chance? Would we be better off or worse? This could be taken to ridiculous extremes and probably result in a very interesting story.
It is by considering the unknown and changing our view of how the world works that we could come up with an infinite number of scenarios. Personally, my favorite one to explore has been what if I had stayed at the first college I attended and actually finished in a timely manner? What might have happened and who might I have met? Who might I have married and what job would I have now? Over a year of contemplating this one scenario has resulted in creating an alternate universe which is based somewhat on actual facts and a whole slew of completely contrived situations. Also considering alternative paths within this fictitious reality has helped while away many a hour.
So, with these 2 words you can eradicated your writers block by taking your story to whole new place and consider going back and reconsidering another alternative to the one you started. I have also applied this to books I have read (alternate endings are my favorite), movies, television shows and even historical events (what if Steve Jobs had never returned to Apple?).
Moving forward I try to write 6 impossible scenarios to expand into stories every morning before breakfast. In the end, it is the stories we finish that count but there is fun to be had playing with outcomes that seem completely unlikely and probably leads to the most interesting stories of all.