The Question’s the Thing

The Question’s the Thing
What if… Why…
These two questions lie at the heart of fiction. What if I took character X and dropped him in the middle of Y? What would he do? What would happen? Why?
Built into the what and why is the character – certain personality types will take different actions than other personality types. Then, there’s the person’s background, experiences, world view – all of that character development is tied into the question of “Why?”
Of course, setting goes along with the question of “what if” – what if my main character was an astronaut in training – setting is a key factor. What if my antagonist is a diabolical mad genius who builds spaceships? Again, setting is built into this.
As a writer, if you can focus on the “What if” and the “Why,” you will jump right into the world building and content growing stage of drafting.
What if my protagonist was a young woman who was independent during the Great Depression, a time when women went from being someone’s daughter to someone’s wife to someone’s mother? And what if she lived a double life because she wanted people to hold a certain image of her? And what if someone came along who figured out all of her secrets? And what if she had a relationship with nature that person and it brought out the self-destructive side of her. What if she couldn’t end the relationship? Why couldn’t she? These are the questions at the core of Josephine: Red Dirt and Whiskey
What if there was a young man from a Confederate family and a young woman from a Union family in Kentucky (the state always officially fought for the Union, but there were many Confederate supporters as well) at the end of the Civil War?  And, what if these two young people knew their families expectations of them and had grown up knowing what their lives would be as adults? But, what if they met each other and found out more than they wanted to know about their own families’ secrets? And, what if, even though they fought against it, they fell in love? What if they had to choose between each other and their families? Why would they choose what they do?
This is the core of Nelson and Cora: The Beginning
For more on using “What if” and “Why” in your writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing
and, most definitely check out Larry Brooks at – tons of great writing advice and tools.
What questions do you try to answer in your writing? I’d love to know in the comments!

About melindamcguirewrites

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. ------ William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech, Stockholm, 1950
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11 Responses to The Question’s the Thing

  1. Paul Welch says:

    I enjoyed the post! It’s a technique I use, too.

  2. Jane says:

    I love that technique. I am going to recommend this post to my writing group!

  3. A.R.West says:

    Orson Scott Card has a great section in his book on writing. I ponder the question all the time. The answer is usually the other obvious choice.

  4. DM says:

    I love the ‘what ifs’ and they sure work for you. ‘Josephine’ is a marvelous look at personalities.

  5. Tonya Rice says:

    Hi Melinda.
    Very good post.The book I’m working on now was started on that important “what-if” premise. Oddly enough, another character began to compete for the top spot as protagonist and I wound up getting through the entire first draft with the wrong person. It wasn’t working for me until I finally gave the initial person that spot during the rewrite as due! It was intense stuff to deal with. Now, the story’s flowing along. I had his questions to answer first; her’s will be taken care of in the next book! Thanks!

  6. Kate says:

    I use Larry Brook’s StoryEngineering for everything. It’s one of my favourite writing books. You’ve got to be like a small child, always asking why.

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