Plotting Your Creative Story with ‘What Ifs?’

By Maggie Hamand

Many written stories start with an idea generated by asking ‘What if . . .?’: What if humans discovered that they’re not alone? What if a volcanic explosion triggered a tsunami that destroyed a major city? What if the bride called off the wedding just before the service began? What if the character discovered that his troubled sister was an adopted child?

But ‘what if’ questions can help you at every stage of the plotting process in creative writing, not only at the start. Every time your characters need to make a decision, work out what would happen if they chose each different option. Then ask some more ‘what ifs’.

What if your character Alfie had to choose between stealing something and resisting? He chooses to steal. What if he’s seen? What if he realises this – and what if he doesn’t? What if the witness – Emily – decides to tell the police, another person or keep it a secret? What if Alfie then decides to find a secret about Emily in order to keep her silent? What if he then starts to fall for her? What if she falls for him – or comes to hate him and thinks he’s stalking her? What if she calls on a friend to help her?

You can see the almost infinite possibilities contained within the most simple of stories. This sense of possibility gives a piece of writing narrative tension. (Readers never want the outcome to be obvious.) The great thing about ‘what if’ questions is that they force to you examine different scenarios for your story. They help you to come up with ideas that may otherwise never have occurred to you.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story in 1941 called ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. It’s about a novel in which, instead of the character choosing one path and eliminating the others, all possible outcomes occur, each one leading to further proliferations of possibilities. The novel is, of course, never finished – because it would have to be infinite.

Try drawing a plan of your novel like a branching tree, with an initial choice and then the choices resulting from those choices, filling in all the possibilities. See how long it takes before you have so many branches that you can no longer fit them on the page.

Examine the choices your character makes and see which ones take the story in the most challenging and interesting direction. What seems to be a poor choice initially may result in a more interesting direction for your story. Even if the choice seems to take you away from the line you originally wanted to take, explore it further – you may find that you can find a way back again.

Get a large piece of paper and go from the start of your story through a long series of ‘what ifs’. The story quickly starts to take shape. You don’t always have to decide what choice your character makes – sometimes leaving the possibilities open is helpful, although you’ll want to eliminate the most unlikely ones.