My First “What if?” Moment

Some great stories are not conceptually driven.  Jonathan Franzen’s current #1 bestseller, Freedom: A Novel, for example, is about a married couple in which the wife has a wandering eye.

Not exactly The DaVinci Code, conceptually-speaking.

More often, though, bestsellers and everything else on the rack has a conceptual energy that drives characterization and theme.  The more genre-focused your story, the more this is true.

The best tool in the business to understand, empower, explore and develop a conceptual idea is the application of a specific literary device, and it’s as old as the hills.  It is a question: “What if?”

Master that tool and your stories will go to the next level.

Here’s how I first encountered the realm of “what if?”

It was a dark and dreary night.  No, it really was.  I was seven.

That was a long, long time ago.  Let’s just say the picture on the television was black and white and there was a portable antenna sitting on top of it.

I was watching the Alfred Hitchcock hour with my parents.  Who apparently hadn’t read the book about exposing young children to Alfred Hitchcock.

Today that’d be like taking your toddler to see Hostel II.

Looking back, I don’t think my parents ever read a book about parenting — or a book about anything, for that matter — but that’s another story.

An hour later, as the credits rolled, I was over-the-edge terrified.  Scarred for life.

Also scared witless.  Enough that I had to sleep with my parents for the next week and had trouble going to sleep for the next decade.  I literally couldn’t lie on my left side on a bed – for reasons that will become clear in a moment – until I left home.

For some reason that cleared up a lot of other problems for me, as well.  But I digress.

Some “what if?” concepts are that powerful. 

Allow me to share what I saw on that television screen.

The story took place in a prison, one of those low-security work camps with lots of barbed wire and outdoor labor.  Remember, this was long before anything more sophisticated than an electric fence, so a certain lack of penal sophistication was to be expected.

The hero was a cocky young guy newly sentenced to 30 years.  He had a rough time of it at first, and decided he needed to break out as soon as possible.  He was played by Edd Byrnes, the James Dean lookalike who ended up on 77 Sunset Strip, which I’m sure pre-dates most of you out there.

Yeah, I’m that freaking old.

Anyhow, Edd befriended the oldest prisoner in the camp, a harmless and friendly chap who had been there over 50 years, whose job was to bury the prison’s dead in a cemetery that was – get ready for the scriptwriter convenience – outside of the prison property.  Old Doc could come and go as he pleased to and from the cemetery, which is what gave Edd his Big Idea. 

His own “what if?” moment, as it were.

Edd struck a deal with old Doc that when the next prisoner died, Edd would slip into the wood coffin with the dead guy in the wee hours before the burial.  Doc would bury the coffin the next morning, standard procedure, with a small contingent of family and prison officials there, then come back a little later alone and dig him up.

I can’t recall if there was payment involved, or if Doc was simply willing to give someone who looked like James Dean a break… but he agreed.

Sure enough, within a few days a prisoner died.  It was on.                                                                   

Edd took advantage of the moment by faking an injury to his leg, allowing him to spend the night in the prison infirmary instead of his cell.  In the middle of the night he snuck off to the make-shift morgue adjacent to the infirmary (more screenwriter convenience), slipped quietly into the coffin in the dim shadows, and waited.

That being the very definition of a long night.

The next sequence of shots intercut between Edd in the coffin and an exterior view.  He  lit matches to check his watch, revealing the shrouded profile beneath a thin sheet right next to his face, narrating aloud what he believed was happening as he felt himself being moved.

Already creepy, ya think?  My parents were too busy lighting cigarettes to notice.

Finally there was a shot of the empty pick up leaving the cemetery grounds.  Suddenly things got very quiet for poor Edd.

After a while our hopeful hero began to get nervous. 

Checking his watch, exclaiming aloud how Doc ought to be back by now… maybe he’s digging…

… intercut with a shot of the cemetery and the fresh grave…

… Edd, understandably, began to get downright agitated.  Soon he was clawing at the wooden lid of his coffin, screaming… then thrashing.

And that’s when it happened

The money shot.  In his thrashing Edd kicked the sheet off the body next to him.

It was Doc.

And I was traumatized for life.

Of course, decades later I realized such a story could not have been written in an organic fashion, that the idea – that money shot, the concept – was the driving force that empowered the entire story.

It was a killer “what if?” moment.

And it totally killed any hope I had for a healthy outlook on dying and the ritual of all things funereal.  I never got that story out of my head – ever – as I grew toward one day becoming a writer.

As a footnote, I’m done writing about caskets. 

In my last post I promised that the follow-up would be on that topic – here it is – but I’m done.

Because as I said to close that article, caskets still creep me out.  Even when they’re in trucks.  Passing that 18-wheeler is as close as I want to come to one.

Now you know why.

Coming Monday – great news for all of us who aren’t currently A-list authors from Publishers Weekly.  The industry is changing… and we just caught a break!

15 Comments

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15 Responses to My First “What if?” Moment

  1. You’re not that much older than I am, by the sounds of your viewing choices. (I remember the folks getting their first color TV, a massive console beast that smelled funny – and now samsung has one as thin as an iPhone.)

    But I’m drifting here.

    ‘What-if’ moments are great, but rare (I find). My two current WIPs are character driven stories that I’ve invented plots around (Irish lottery winner trying to help out his girlfriend in Miami and Aussie actress struggling to make a go of it in La-La-Land).

    The last good what-if I had (what if an ordinary joe interrupts an attempted hijacking in SE Asia, then becomes the target of the terrorists) I wrote before I discovered your story structure ebook. Attempting to restructure it after the fact was an interesting, but not entirely successful, exercise.

    The next time a great what-if pops into my aging skull, at least I’ll have the tools to build a good story around it.

  2. I remember that story – and I don’t remember a lot of televison from that far back. That last scene was definitely a take-your-breath-away moment. Great story! But sorry your 7 year-old self was exposed to Hitchcock. He was creepy even for adults.

  3. Larry, that is one freakin’ memory.

    Mine concerns seeing, “A Night to Remember” about the Titanic when I was a wee one. It turned into a lifetime to remember. I refuse to go on a cruise, don’t like boats and still have drowning nightmares. Now that is one powerful movie.
    (Don’t even ask if I saw the remake–OF COURSE NOT)

    Whew, glad to get that out of my system, but after thinking about it, now I need a blood pressure pill (yea, I’m that old too.)

    Doc is the coffin is reealllly scary *chills)

  4. Larry, A great article. I remember the kids telling that story, but never saw it. I have the first two seasons of Hitchcock, but not the episode of Edd Byrnes. I worked with Edd recently on his audio-book ‘My Casino Caper’. Edd actually arrived in Hollywood on the very day James Dean crashed his porche. He was gassing up and the station attendant told him about it. If you catch this comment by Oct. 7th you can download his 77 minute audio-memoir by this free link, or email me for a fresh one. I’m the director and owner of Edd’s audio, so it’s okay to do it. You dig his true story about being stalked for his Vegas win in 1977. Just go to the page and click ‘download’ and it goes in quickly to LISTEN (not see) on your pc: http://www.yousendit.com/download/WTNMTGt3aFJGR0UwTVE9PQ

  5. That is suitably freaky.

    Mine came at about the same age. My parents had to take me to Salt Lake for some tests (still don’t fully know what’s wrong with me, but that’s neither here nor there) and dad was flipping channels in the hotel one night. Didn’t even see the whole movie, just one scene was all it took.

    Gremlins – when the mother is alone in the house and takes them all out in the kitchen.

    For years after that I couldn’t get into bed without jumping the last few feet, and once there I had to have extra blankets and stuffed animals surrounding me as a buffer between me and the monsters. If I went down to the basement (fully finished so not as scary as some) by myself I had to turn all the lights on along the way. When I went back upstairs, I was always two stairs up leaning back for the switch before the lights went out.

    It wasn’t until a few years ago that I could actually stand to listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear” around Christmas without getting freaked out. I’m pretty sure I’ll only ever be able to associate that song with evil little monsters. (I think their size relative to their ferocity freaked me out more than anything)

    And to this day and undoubtedly beyond, I can’t sleep with any part of me hanging over the edge of the bed. I have to be within the safe confines of the mattress. I’ve tried – I make it less than a minute before my brain reverts to its terrified younger self and I’m huddled in the middle of the bed. Because there’s always that “what if” of something being there reaching out to grab me and pull me under.

    I have to distract myself with other “what ifs” to get to sleep, some of which I save and jot down for story ideas. Though the gremlins in my writing now are all internal, which I’m sure my characters love having.

  6. Colleen Shine Phillips

    In writing, “what if” is not really a moment, but rather a motor, for me. I have to ask myself that question to create any kind of unique conflict/story. Having said that….I SO remember Edd Byrnes. And that Hitchcock story was chilling. Almost as much as Olivia de Havilland’s role in The Snake Pit. Came out a couple of years before I was born, but once I saw it. . . one of those movies your never forget. As always, a great post.

  7. Trudy

    Mine was the Twilight Zone episode where the gorilla was on the plane’s wing pulling out all the wires while the guy was watching, horrified, thru the portal. Oy Vey. SPeaking of bad parenting, I left my older son babysitting my younger one, and they decided to watch Chucky. My little son…well, I don’t think he slept in his bed alone for about 12 years!!! could have wrung my older son’s neck for that one!!

  8. Claire Fadden

    I totally remember watching that with my mom and older brother. I must have been about 5 or 6, but I thought it was the Twilight Zone. To this day I still see the face of the old dead guy and like you, I was scared and had trouble falling asleep for years. What if . . .

  9. Julianne

    Salem’s Lot with the vampire boy scratching at the foggy window for his friend to let him in. Oh, the horror. I can’t get myself to watch it again even though my first time was 25 years ago.

  10. Kelly

    Hello, Larry.
    A great post. Amazing what coincidences form us as people, what sticks for years and years.
    Your character reminded me of the original meaning of “saved by the bell” (It wasn’t related to school). Even with writerly convenience, the twist at the end is worth those devices. (And you told it so well I didn’t see the end coming). Love old Alfred.
    No more posts about caskets sounds good to me, even though the “what if” factor was great.
    Tony– IMHO, “what if” is a game you can teach yourself. You may start out with something mundane:
    What if I go to Mcdonald’s for lunch today instead of eating at my desk?
    What if a disgruntled employee comes in to my workplace and strafes the office with an AK-47 up while I’m gone?
    What if he was passed over for promotion because he had an affair with the boss’s wife?
    What if I’m the boss? Yada, yada, yada.
    I find it a good way to approach the problem of being stuck while writing.
    What’s next, Larry?
    Cheers, Kelly

  11. @Kelly, thanks. Make no mistake, during the construction of a story I what-if all over the place. It’s the spontaneous massive what-if that forms the starting point I was referring to.

  12. Mary

    “What if” can be totally creepy sometimes.
    It was the mid 80s and random people were dying after taking Tylenol. In writer mode (while the cause was still unknown) I thought, “What if someone tampered with bottles of Tylenol tablets on store shelves before poisoning his or her spouse to make her/his death look like one of the random deaths?”
    :-/
    My TV trauma was William Shatner and the gremlin on the airplane wing — when he pulled up the shade and the creature was peering in the window. Yikes!
    And I totally remember “77 Sunset Strip.” Yikes!

  13. Pingback: What if? | 2 Kids and a Dog

  14. For me it was that scene in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where the creepy south american guy rips out the heart of the human sacrifice and holds it up in the air laughing, while the human sacrifice is screaming and being burned alive in the background … not exactly stuff a 9-year-old should be watching IMO.

  15. Great post! I’m an aspiring author trying to find some voices that I trust as I go through the process, and so far I really like what I see here. This post had me laughing, and your rendering of the show seriously creeped me out. I’ll definitely be back to see what you have to say about writing and storytelling.