Writing: The Great and Wonderful What-Ifs

My grandson came to spend the night on Tuesday, and he asked me if I could help him write a story.  Nate’s 16, and when he’s serious about something, he delves into it.  I have no idea if he’ll follow through or not, but he was in the mood to get answers.  “What do I do first?” he asked.

“What kind of story do you want to write?” I asked.

And he gave me an in depth idea he’d been playing with–a guy who could call back any of his ancestors in time to pick their minds.  Pretty interesting.  He knew the setting.  He knew what each ancestor did in their previous lives, and he wanted lots of atmosphere.  All good, and it would make a great opening hook, but it wasn’t a story.

“Why not?” he asked.  Every detail was vivid in his mind.

“What does the hero want?” I asked.

“To talk to his ancestors.”

“Why?” I persisted.

He didn’t have a clue.

“Every story starts when some event knocks your protagonist off course, changes his life for the worse, and he has to DO something to fix it, to get his life back to normal.  Your protagonist needs a problem, a problem big enough that he can’t ignore it.  That’s called the inciting incident.”

Nate thought about that.  He decided that his hero should like a girl, but she didn’t like him.

“Not good enough,” I said.  “Like isn’t a strong enough passion.  The more the protagonist cares about the problem, the more it affects him, the stronger the emotional impact when he can’t have it and the harder he’ll try to achieve it.  The stakes have to be high, almost impossible.”

“Okay, maybe he loves the girl and something’s keeping them apart if his ancestors can’t give him a way of keeping her.”

“Great,” I said.  “What’s keeping them apart?”

Again, no idea.  So we played the game of “What if?”

Finally Nate said, “What if she catches some disease and one of the ancestors was an alchemist and might know how to cure her?”

Aaah, now that could work.  But there had to be more, or this would be a very short story.  “How could this go wrong?” I asked him.  “You never want to make it easy for the protagonist to achieve his goal.  What if he tried calling the ancestor, but something messed  up?”

“I know!  What if he called the wrong one?  What if one of his ancestors was a bad guy, and when Andre (we were making progress-he had a name for the guy) brings him back, he doesn’t want to return to the grave?”

Now, we were talking.  The protagonist has more problems than he knows what to do with.  Nate had the beginnings for a story.  He had enough ideas percolating for the opening hook, the inciting incident, the internal motivation, and the first story twist.  A good beginning.  Enough to get him through the first fourth of his pages.  Where he goes from that, I don’t know.  We’ll have to play another game of “What ifs.”  But along with that, “What can go wrong?” is another useful tool when you’re stuck for ideas.

I hope your protagonist finds an almost insurmountable problem that drives him all the way to the end of your story or novel.  But if he doesn’t, ask yourself, “What if?” and “What can go wrong?” and have fun.

13 thoughts on “Writing: The Great and Wonderful What-Ifs

  1. I’m curious that your grandson hadn’t written stories on her own before he was 16. Kids usually seem to start writing stories, either on their own or as a school assignment, in middle school. It was bonding time for you and your grandson, though.


    1. He’d written stories–quite a few of them–at school, but they were always assigned and structured…and he wasn’t too excited about them. This was his first stab to write one for fun, on his own. And yes, you’re right. It was a great bonding time for us.


  2. I feel young. Tyler would call me “spry,” his way of letting me know I only FEEL young. My grandsons are smart alecks, but I might keep them. Having them live with us, and bring all their friends over, might have made us tired, but I do think it kept us active.


  3. such wonderful wisdom, and how you cut right to the heart of plotting… wow, I’m impressed. ANYONE thinking of starting a novel should read this – just think how much better they’d write?! Great post, Judith, truly.


  4. Thanks, I taught elementary school for six years and I’ve been around kids for the rest of my life. Lots of late night homework and school papers. Sometimes, I worry my brain hasn’t fully turned to adulthood:) Have you ever looked at Kristen Lamb’s blog? She’s doing a big push on plotting right now. Pretty interesting. http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/


    1. Thanks for visiting. I always enjoy Unikorna. Went to your blog too. Would have pushed “like” for piece on holidays–it’s nice to see what each of our religions celebrates–but couldn’t find the button. But I thought it was really interesting. And hooray on 23 years!


    1. I visited your blog. Looked for a “like” button, but must have missed it. I really enjoyed your tour of Ireland and its legends. I love Greek and Norse myths, but don’t know much about Celtic or Irish lore. Found it fascinating.


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