From academics and writers to soldiers and sailors, the “what if?” game is a popular sport. Whenever you deep dive into the study of a book, a football game, or even family interactions, you may ask yourself, what if? What if the author wrote this character as a girl, boy, nonbinary, or pick your poison? What if the quarterback hadn’t choked after the lights went out in the stadium? What if your parents had different careers? It may be fun to play the what if game, but you can’t lose yourself in it. For writing a book, it’s no different.
For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on Extoria off and on since 2013, when I wrote it as a prequel to a novella I completed on my deployment. Ever since then, it’s been a series of what ifs and maybe instead I should… you get the picture. A few weeks ago, I considered a major change and realized that I was just trying to find another way to procrastinate. You may know that feeling yourself. As many have said before, no work of art is ever finished, it’s just abandoned. So, let’s address when the what if game is healthy, and when it’s not.
The Healthy “What If?”
Healthy what ifs occur at certain points in the writing process. The best times to address the what if comes at the beginning, halfway, and climax points of your first draft. If you can keep it to those, you may not end up working on the book as long as I have. I think I’ve needed this time to learn, but hopefully this will help you move that timeline up. The reason I like those three points in the first draft is because it’s the peaks of creativity. If you’ve written a rough draft, or are near any of those three marks, you might know what I mean. The excitement is there, you’re plowing through your novel, and the keyboard’s trying to keep up.
The beginning “what if?” is probably the easiest set of questions to answer since it’s the premise of your story. What if an astronaut is stranded on Mars? (The Martian by Andy Weir) What if a child discovers a mysterious egg that turns out to be one of the last dragons? (Eragon by Christopher Paolini) Maybe that will help you focus on the start of your novel like it has with mine. Extoria started as a “how did we get here?” answer to what may be book four or five of the series. Extoria’s question became: What would someone do if kidnapped and forced to fight in digital battles for their lives? So, what’s your story’s beginning “what if”?
The middle “what if” comes in after your characters’ choices are made on their path, but the challenges mount against them. These are often the what ifs that appear as small choices but have large repercussions at the climax. What if your character treated another with respect, disrespect, or killed them here? How would that change your character/story arc? What if your character asked themselves a different question here?
The climax “what if” should answer the beginning “what if”. While the answer may be scattered through the rest of the book, it will receive the final solid answer here. Mark Watney launches off of mars in what is mockingly called a convertible. You can view this as the answer is life finds a way, or survival of the fittest.
The Unhealthy What if?
Any time you find yourself stuck in the “what if” cycle, then you’re reaching the unhealthy areas. A what if cycle occurs when you start with one “what if” and then follow a downward spiral of more negative what ifs. Do your “what ifs” help the story? Push the plot closer to the theme? Or maybe they redirect your story back onto the tracks, and those are healthy. But if your “what if” drives you from your book, sets you on unnecessary errands, or adds nothing to your story, then you might have fallen into a negative what if cycle.
The writing journal entries is a more open thought process for me to share with other writers. I hope they help or entertain you. Everyone has those thoughts or experiences that are stigmatized by the writing community, but I hope to create an open environment for conversation. If you agree, disagree, or have any other additions to this post, please comment. If not, thank you for reading.
And as always, stay fresh, my nugs!