The power of ‘What If’

posted in: Creation, Writing | 0

Storytelling is the art of answering ‘what if’ in creative and imaginative, entertaining, and/or unexpected ways. The point of storytelling is to engage your audience. That’s just a fancy word that means, in this context, basically the same thing as interest or entertain. You want to engage your audience by hooking them in to your tale, which happens by getting them interested in what’s happening, or entertaining them with it.

I see new storytellers all over the internet who allow themselves to get lost in the act of blowing writing and creation up into this grandiose act that has to be perfect and awesome from the first step, that has to carry immense mythical weight and impart a message that will resonate across the ages.

That describes some writing, but I’d argue it’s really only usually applicable to scholarly writing. Academic writing. Not storytelling. Not prose meant for entertainment.

Leave blowing people away with intellect for the academicians. When you’re sitting there wanting to write a book, or a movie, or a play, or a comic, or a game, or a whatever, what you almost always want is to entertain people.

There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. In fact, countless strong arguments could be made that it’s one of the most important things we can do in the world. Humanity is always taking itself far too seriously, and needs to lighten up more. Providing outlets for people to ‘kick back’ and relax in a fantasy world is a fine goal, a laudable one.

Still not convinced? I’m not going to take the hour or two it would to go look all the figures up, but I’ll bet quite a bit that if you go add up all the time collectively spent by the world’s population on ‘entertainment’, it tops anything else. Yes, even ‘work’. After all, work only forty hours a week in the so-called first world. Even tacking on some more hours for chores still leaves a lot of time each week, month, year, whatever, for leisure. And it’s unquestionable that, collectively, the number one activity people spend their ‘free’ time on is leisure.

That many people can’t all be that wrong, can they? Wanting to tell stories is a thing your fellow peoples desire.

So that should dispose of the ‘but my work has to be weighty enough to resound across the ages’ objection. What about the next most common one?

How to do it?

I really don’t think anyone can boil every facet of storytelling into an easily digestible article. It’s a skill, a craft, and like all such things it’s going to take newcomers to it time to absorb and process all the lessons.

But — okay, okay, stay with me — that doesn’t mean you have to blow storytelling up into this impossible mission. It is hard to do well, but it’s not hard to start doing.  And by doing, whether it’s storytelling or juggling or riding a bike or anything you might decide to do, you get better at it.  By doing, you learn.  That’s just how you learn.  You do, and get better in the process.  There are no shortcuts.  There’s only how fast you learn, but you still have to do the learning.

At its core, to me, all storytelling is simply answering the question ‘what if’ imaginatively, creatively, and amusingly. That’s it. There’s really nothing more complicated to the process than that.

All stories, whatever form they take, start with a big central ‘what if’ that describes what is generally called the concept of the story.

  • What if a cop on ‘vacation’ on the opposite coast ends up in the middle of a terrorist takeover of a building? Congratulations, that’s Die Hard.
  • What if toys not only came to life when people aren’t around, but also fear being replaced and no longer played with? Guess what, Toy Story.
  • What if two completely different people from utterly opposite societal castes meet and fall in love on a ship that’s going to sink a few days into its inaugural voyage? And that’s Titanic.

This can sometimes be called the ‘elevator pitch’, because it’s the short and sweet answer to the inevitable question ‘what’s your story/movie/comic/game/whatever about?’ But when you’re starting from square one in the creation process, it’s your initial framework.  It gives you a place to keep asking questions from; because you have a starting point.

From there, you keep asking what ifs. Dial them down, further and further, getting more and more granular, until you’ve set up a whole sequence of what ifs in a line, from here to there. Here is ‘once upon a time’, and there is ‘the end.’

Let’s return to Die Hard. What if a cop ends up in the middle of a terrorist take over? Okay, what if he does? But why would he care so much, since his job is three thousand miles away? His wife works in this building. Okay, why is he so far from his home city where he’s a cop? He and his wife are estranged.

Ah ha! So now we have a viable sub-plot. Main plot is cop dealing with the terrorists. Sub plot is cop and wife relating to each other, the classic will-they-won’t-they of any love story.

What if the terrorists attack the building but he gets away and isn’t held hostage? Okay, now he’s loose in the building. What if a terrorist comes looking for him? Fight scene. What if he kills that terrorist? Our cop thinks the other terrorists will notice the dead one doesn’t come back, sooner or later, so he decides to send the body down in an elevator (sans weapons and cigarettes, obviously) as a way to taunt the terrorists, which might unsettle them or disrupt them, and at least gives him a chance to maybe learn some more about who he’s up against.

What if the dead terrorist had a brother on the heist? Great, another sub plot; now we’ve got revenge in the mix too! What if the dead terrorist had something the terrorists need? Detonators, because they want to blow the building up later. Now they need to get the cop, because they need those back.

See how the process flows? You just keep asking and answering what ifs until you’ve told enough story.

Obviously this is a very broad strokes explanation, but creating a story doesn’t have to be any harder than this. There’s some ‘craft’ in how you arrange the what ifs and their answers. Things like foreshadowing and callbacks come up. Endings play a role because you want to dial the what ifs up and down in tension and stakes to heighten and release tension.

A very quick example of what I mean by ‘the craft’ can be seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a scene early in the film, it was in one of the trailers, where the Avengers all (except Black Widow) see if they can lift Thor’s hammer. Because the hammer’s enchanted, and only those ‘worthy of the power of Thor’ can wield it. The scene is played for comedic value, and seems only to be a fun little collective character moment.

But later (spoilers) Vision casually picks the hammer up and hands it to Thor as a sign it’s time for them to all gear up and head out to fight Ultron in a final battle. Without that ‘throwaway comedy’ scene earlier, only eagle-eyed super fans might remember that “hey, only someone worthy of the power of Thor can hold that hammer.” And not all of those might even remember that, more or less, that phrase basically means the potential hammer wielder has to be a good guy at heart, with heroic non-evil intentions.

But pair the funny scene with the “here’s your hammer Thor, let’s go fight evil” bookend later in the film, and you’ve got a very effective one-two that sets up and gets call back for a later payoff.  It establishes Vision as a good guy basically instantly, and moves the story right into the climatic conflict.

That’s the kind of thing writers mean when they talk about ‘craft’.

But that’s for later. When you’re getting started, just focus on the what ifs. On asking those questions, and coming up with the answers, and on laying them out into a long sequence of “and then, and then, and then.” As in, “What if toys come alive when no people are around, and what if one of those toys is the boy’s favorite, and then the boy gets a new toy that’s super cool, and then the older favorite toy fears being replaced, and then . . .”

Let’s wrap up with words of profound storyteller wisdom by E.L. Doctorow.

“It’s like driving a car at night; you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Now go write something.