www.whyville.net May 15, 2011 Weekly Issue

Times Writer

Lesson 2: The What-If

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Lesson 1: How to Describe can be found here: http://j.whyville.net/smmk/whytimes/article?id=11838

People have their own sources of inspiration when they write - movies, songs, paintings, moods, other books, even - but the trick is to latch on to that inspiration and draw out of it something that works.

You can write something creatively, and someone can read it and go, "Oh, that was nice and well written," but what will drive you that extra step from, "Oh, that was nice," to, "Oh, I'm going to remember this for a long time"?

I call it the "what if." I'm sure you sometimes find yourself lost in your imagination - be it sleepiness or boredom - and your brain seems to pick itself up and start showing random things as if it were on a TV, things it feels like you're watching and have no control over.

Here is where you get the "what if." Normally this daydreaming passes by, you snap out of it, chuckle a little, and continue with your life, because the things you've been dreaming about are strange, crazy, wish fulfillment, random or nonsensical things. When you construct stories they have to follow a straight line, make sense - they can't veer off the road in insane loops and colorful twists that are little more than paint splashes on a page. And thus you discard your crazy imagery and use your logic for plotting out your stories. Yes, you do this even if you write fantasy.

The trick is to be able to halt yourself when you hit a good idea, and hold onto it. Daydream. Wonder. And then when you hit a strange question, or an odd visual, stop.

I used to work at a library, and I would daydream as I shelved books. One day my brain randomly decided to wonder if there was an age limit for suicide. How young did you have to be before you could comprehend the horror of killing yourself?

Instead of shrugging at this and going on, I stopped and clutched onto that question. What if I put that question into a story?

And thus a short story was born.

Imagery can play a strong role, too. When I was younger I had a fondness for fairies, and I envisioned what a modern-day fairy would look like, complete with wings. How would the body structure work? What size wings would be required to lift her weight? Would she have hollow bones? How would she hide the things, if possible?

Stories based off imagery are a little easier to do. If I say "here, write a story about a fairy," you can be "Okay, sure" and write something pretty generic. So imagery as a source is a good start, at least.

Say then we start a story based off imagery. We have a fairy with huge wings and hollow bones who's a few hundred years old and naive to the ways of the world. Let's put it in the popular genre of romance - she finally ends up interacting with this guy who's really into nature and whatnot. He doesn't have to sparkle.

Now the question here is how to develop plot. Say we have a general goal - they start to fall in love, she starts to experience 'modern' life, maybe the bad guy is someone who is trying to capture her for a science experiment or something.

All of this is generic. A protagonist meets the love interest, experiences new things, and then has to defeat the antagonist who wants to harm her for personal gain.

This story has no "what if."

And this is when you start daydreaming. Let your mind wander. Let it ask questions, let it find imagery - it doesn't even have to be related to fairies, forests, or romance. Let it roam.

What if - the hollow bones meant brittle bones, rendering her incapable of surviving for very long in a modern world?

What if - she has a daughter but doesn't know it?

What if - she's stuck in a time loop, and ends up killing herself over and over again?

What if - she doesn't actually have wings and is just crazy, but you don't find that out until the end?

The weirder the better.

Sometimes you'll have "what if"s without regards to a story. In fact, most of your "what if"s will not come when you're trying to think of what to write next. They come when you're bored, or going to sleep. Some psychologists call this state a sort of hypnosis, where you become technically unconscious to the world around you and have no memory of what was going on while you were immersed in this daydreaming. Pretty cool, but besides the point.

Keep a little notebook handy. If I remember right I think it was either Steven King or Terry Brooks who also does this - and jot down random little "what if"s whenever they come to mind. Build a list, and so when you begin to write a story you can look at all these crazy amazing ideas that seem bizarre on their own but maybe just maybe if you could work this in to the plot and tweak this setting just so then it would turn out to be so cool.

And then you'll find you haven't got a good plot. Now it's a great plot.


Author's Note: I am contacting people for writing experiments to be possibly featured in an article in the future. If you like writing stories or poetry and wish to participate, y-mail me.


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