Writers: Need Story Ideas? Ask WHAT IF
A constant question most writers get is where do story ideas come from? Once, as a joke, I said there was a magazine called “Ideas” that most writers subscribed to. If you saw an idea you liked, you could register to own the idea and write your book based on the information the magazine provided. I said I missed out on the Harry Potter books by just a few days, and that J. K. Rowling beat me to the registration. Otherwise, Rowling’s billions could have been mine!
Later I had someone approach me to ask for information on how they could subscribe to “Ideas” magazine. I had to explain it was a hoax (plus, how you write the story is more important than the idea. You could tell a hundred writers to write a story about a wizard you wouldn’t end up with a hundred Harry Potters).
There is, however, an infallible way to come up with story ideas. I call it the “What If” question.
For instance, I once asked myself, What If I used the Lester Dent Master Plot (see a previous entry to this blog) to write a mystery story set in L.A.’s Little Tokyo? The result of that What If was my multiple award-winning first novel, Death in Little Tokyo.
Or let’s say you watched a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and asked yourself, “What if this was set in the Highlands of Japan, not Scotland?” Wait, has that already been done with Kurosawa’s movie, Throne of Blood? Okay, What If the answers to the puzzles the three witches pose are different from what Shakespeare or Kurosawa presented? The result from this What If? My book Makoto.
Even daily life presents countless stories based on the What If question. I attended a sold-out event and noticed an empty seat in the front row (pre-pandemic, of course). I wondered why someone would miss this event. What If they’ve been murdered? Or, better yet, What If they were out committing a murder? I haven’t written a book about this yet, but the What If question certainly stimulates the imagination.
Common incidents are also subject to a What If to generate story ideas. My wife and I go shopping together and, if we separate, I can guarantee I will not be able to find her, even in a small store (either I’m lousy at tracking people or she has some hidden Ninja powers she hasn’t told me about). I’ve wondered several times, What If she’s disappeared completely? Why would she do that? Would someone else be involved? Why? What If she was living a double life (besides any Ninja powers, that is)? An agent of some kind? A keeper of family secrets?
I haven’t written a book about this, either, but you can see the power of What If questions to stoke the imagination.
Socrates thought people had all the wisdom and answers inside them if a good teacher would only ask the right questions. I believe for a writer, What If is the most powerful line of questioning you can pursue. You won’t need a fanciful “Ideas” magazine because inside you there are already enough stories to last a lifetime, if you just ask the What If question.