The ‘What If’ Factor

What IfI’ve been asked many times “How do you get the ideas for your stories?”

In fact, I’ve probably answered that question on here already, but I was talking to someone recently and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad in the heady days when I believed I would become a best-selling author by the time I was 18.

He asked me to consider the “What If” factor.  I, of course, looked at him blankly.  He had a way of doing that to me, which is part of the reason I loved him so much – he challenged me to think.

‘Most science fiction stories come from the author asking the question “What if?”‘  he said.  As if that explained it.

While I admit that a lot of my stories have come from the bizarre dreams I’m afflicted with, the What If factor has been extremely useful.  Not only does it help me ask the right questions about an idea, it encourages me to look at the books I read and try to guess the author’s “What If Factor”.

Here are a few books/films from the sci-fi genre that I’m pretty sure involved the What If factor in their creation:

  • Planet of the Apes (What if the Earth was ruled by lower primates?)
  • 2001 (What if extraterrestrial beings seeded the earth?)
  • Frankenstein (What if it was possible to create life from death?)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (What if a human was raised by Martians?)
  • The Time Machine (What if it was possible to go back or forward in time to save the one you love?)
  • The Minority Report (What if it was possible to predict a crime before it happened?)

I don’t think the What If factor is restricted to science fiction.  Most books could be boiled down to that one question.

  • DOA (What if a dying man solves his own murder?)
  • Treasure Island (What if a boy finds a map to pirate treasure?)
  • Jayne Eyre (What if the man a woman loves keeps his crazy wife locked up in the attic?)
  • Shrek (What if an ogre falls in love with a princess?)

Just a small sample, and I imagine you can think of better ‘What If’ questions than I have for the ones I’ve suggested.  It’s an interesting exercise.  And, for a writer, a valuable one.

While my dad proposed the What If factor as a way to find a story, it also has great importance in helping us find that nugget we’re supposed to latch onto when we write our submission (and query) letters to agents and publishers.  ‘Describe your book in one sentence.’  I doubt I’m alone in having another of those blank-faced moments when that question comes up.  How do you condense 60-150k words into one sentence.  Impossible?

Not if you use the What If factor.

(Now for the blatant plug for my books 😉 )

  • High Tide In the City (What if a killer could use technology to hop from one body to another?)
  • Blightspawn (What if a girl wakes up in a perfect body in a world that wants to destroy it?)
  • Under Verdant Skies (What if a man’s desperation to save his wife drives him to become something she despises?)

If you’re a writer, or a keen reader, thinking about the What If factor can help you dig down to the essence of the story.  I wouldn’t call it theme, although maybe it is, but it’s more specific than that.  Theme is ‘unrequited love’ or ‘good vs evil’.  The What If factor is the core of  one individual story, condensed into just a few words.  It’s a useful tool both for kicking your imagination off, and condensing your story down to its essence.  Beginning or end, the What If factor is a valuable tool.

Don’t forget to use it.


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