What if?


Starting with a key question can help us write compelling stories.

It’s coming up to the exam season. My students, who seem to have ignored me for two years, are suddenly very interested in what I have to say. When I mention I was an A Level examiner in a past life, their attention sharpens. Maybe they can learn from me after all.

One of the things I stress to English Literature students is they need to express a sense of the writer at work. Characters do not exist in their own right, they are constructs, created as vehicles for writers’ thoughts and ideas. Working out what messages writers want to convey often takes students to the heart of characters’ actions and motives.

So what do writers want to say? Do we all have some deeper message we want to impart or are we just telling good stories? I think it’s a bit of both. Often writers start with a ‘what if’ scenario. Perhaps Mary Shelley, on that dark and stormy night in the Villa Diodati, keen to impress her future husband and Lord Byron, and still haunted by the many deaths in her family, wondered what if we could create new life and play God in making creatures out of corpses. So she invented an ambitious, deluded man who created a huge human-like creature, with disastrous results. Ian McEwan said of his novel Enduring Love, that he wanted to see what happened to a rational man when something irrational happened to him, so he created a logical science writer who encounters a delusional stalker.

We don’t all have to have such grand premises. Often it’s something more embedded in human experience: what if a husband was unfaithful to his wife? What if someone went missing? But starting with 'what if' often takes us into interesting plots and helps us to create fascinating characters. Of course we have to write brilliant stories as well. Then our readers will become emotionally and imaginatively engaged in what started off as an intellectual premise.

'What ifs', plus compelling stories, make for memorable writing.