Recently we’ve been looking at the power of daydreaming, how it can improve your writing speed, and how you can direct your daydreaming with the use of questions. Now let’s see how it works in real life.
My friend and fellow writer, Amber Seah, (you may remember her previous guest post on My Life in Music — A Memoir) is going to share a snippet from her writing life. In this post she describes how she and her daughter use the question ‘what if?’ to create interesting stories and discover answers to those tricky story questions.
The other night, while washing the hair of my 6-and-¾-year-old, I was mentally composing a letter from an indignant aunt to my main character, Timothy. While my mind was two centuries and half a world away, my daughter was asking her predictable retinue of ‘what-if’ scenarios, addressing such important questions as:
“What if a person this big, (approximately the size of a grain of rice) could eat a hamburger as big as our house, and….” Wait for the punch line.
“And STILL be hungry?”
I have yet to find satisfactory answers to these puzzles. She is usually posing the next what-if without expanding the first one. Listening to her outlandish what-ifs brought to mind an article I read years ago about using ‘what if’ to overcome writers block. It suggested writing 50 or 100 what-ifs to break through the block.
I have never had occasion to use this method as writer’s block is not something I suffer from, however I do feel from time to time that my plot has become stale, laboured and predictable. If I get bored writing my novel, where does that leave the poor reader?
While I rinsed the soap from my daughter’s hair, I tried to give far-fetched, concise answers to match her scenarios; but like a rubber band left too long in the sun, my imagination does not stretch to equal the dimensions of hers.
Fortunately the brain is not a rubber band. Neuroscientists assure me lost elasticity can be regained. I began what-ifing about the letter of this aunt.
What if she threatens to cut him off? He doesn’t need her money.
What if she forbade him to marry the girl, or insisted he marry another girl? He would throw the letter on the fire.
What if the letter contained a string of insults disguised as advice? Malicious and predictable.
These what-ifs led me to think about the personality of this Aunt. Are Timothy’s beliefs about his aunt a true representation of her? As children we develop impressions of the adults around us, which in adulthood we come to realise were erroneous or at the very least warped.
Has he misjudged his aunt’s interest and intentions in the case?
So I went back to what-ifing, and before the conditioner had soaked in, it hit me.
What if she did not write a letter but came in person? What if on receiving no answer to her carefully-worded letter she followed her nephew to London? After all, she is a woman of action; she is not the sort to sit around at home twiddling her thumbs. Besides, there is always something useful to be got out of London, even if she does not succeed in protecting him from ultimate heartache.
All those what-ifs revealed to me this supporting character’s motivation and personality — a revelation I chose to share with Timothy so that he now has a new understanding and appreciation for his overbearing aunt. Their relationship has grown and hopefully so has the story.
What can what-ifing do for you?
Do you have a dull character? A lull in the action? A sticky bit in the plot?
I won’t put a number on the what-ifs, but I recommend to keep asking them until you hit upon something that stimulates you. Stretch those neurons to reach new connections and feel the exhilaration that comes when you finally hit upon a solution.
That is the magic of “what if”.
What about you? What have you discovered from asking “what if?”?
Amber Seah has always loved the wonder of the written word – be it prose, poetry or song. She lives with her husband, daughter, dog and extensive alphabetized library of favourite books.