The Question You Should Ask Before You Ask “What if?”

I had lunch last week with a writer friend, who is awesome.  She brought her lovely sister, and I brought my lovely and awesome wife, and over omelets and gluten-free bread we had a grand time commiserating the experience of writing serious stories seriously.

Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the topic turned to the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars,  the kind where all the women look like they’re on the opening episode of The Bachelor, and the men like the buzz cut, cheesy golf shirt wearing guys those television reality housewives are, for some reason, always chasing down.

The talk focused on a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at that famous club (hint: it’s in Scottsdale) for the past ten years or so.  A woman beloved by all who have washed their dainty hands there after reapplying make-up.  I immediately pictured Viola Davis in an Olive Oil pillbox hat, dishing out towels and smiles and sage advice for dollar tips.

Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she has heard.  She, it was offered, should write a book.

And then the “what if?” descended on me: what if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard?  About someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, doing things that shouldn’t be done?  And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who knew who might be at the center of it all.

Suddenly Viola Davis was running for her life, and because she’ll be the hero, working to help the bumbling detectives find the bad guy before they find her in a dumpster out back.

I pitched the idea to the table, and resoundingly heard what most writers hear when they spout an off-the-cuff idea, especially to people who aren’t writers: oh my God, you should write that!  Really!  That’d be so cool!

It was breakfast, mind you.  No alcohol involved.

We brainstormed it for a while, taking it through the First Act to a proposed first plot point, at which time the food arrived and we turned to other things.  Like why some writers drink and others simply go mad.

Sad, that seems to be the only two options sometimes.

On the way home my wife asks me, “so, are you going to write that story?”

I didn’t have to think about it.  My answer was a firm, no-looking-back, no.

Here’s why.

Because ideas are just that and nothing more.  They are aromas, not food.  Promises, not deliveries.  Seeds, not gardens.

Ideas – especially in the form of “what if?” – acquire true value when they open doors to something more substantive than whodunit gratification, when they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide.

Ideas should scare the crap out of you.  Or at least, excite you to the point of obsession.  When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion… now you’re on to something

That’s the story you should write.

I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, or for the social dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story.  To analogize this, I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars – and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting, I admit – but who am I to write this story?

If I’d been harboring a thing for ladies restrooms… maybe.  But no.  Not me.

Not that you have to have lived every story you tell.  What I’m saying is that you should bring a long-standing, or at least overwhelming desire to have lived it.  Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the check-out line at Costco.

It happens.  It never ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.

The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the landscape upon which the story will unfold.

And that’s the question a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously. 

What floats your boat?  How would you live your life differently if you could start over, what would you do, who would you be, where would you go, what would you embrace?

This crystallized for me this morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show (Alcatraz), in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island 50 years ago are showing up in present day San Francisco, and they are killing people.  They’ve traveled through time.  They might be ghosts.  But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and they must be found and stopped. 

Once a week, that’ll happen.

Now that interests me.  Both on a “what if?” level, and on a time-tested passion level.  I wish to hell I’d thought of it.  Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of… and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.

Hmmm.  I should look at that.  Because the passion for it is there.  All sorts of thematic, dramatic possibilities.  All I need now is a killer “what if?” proposition that keeps me awake at nights.

The books I’ve published were all, to some extent, grounded in something I have an obsessive, passionate interest in.  Something I know.  Okay, one was thin on that count, and guess what: it was my least successful novel, and the hardest to write.

Come to think of it, the idea hit me in the check out line at Costco.

Don’t jump too fast at your “what ifs.” 

They are like items on a menu… the picture is appealing, and you know it’ll taste good.  But will it nourish?  Will it fill you, does it check something off your bucket list, will it give you focus and joy and challenge? 

Is the idea worth a year of your life?

These are the questions you need to ask before you ask “what if?” 

Write from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiousity, a place where issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the drama as much as any characters you can place within it.

Write the story you should be writing.

If you’re reading this in an email or Feed, here’s some news: Storyfix has undergone a redesign, including a facelift.  Hope you’ll stop by, check it out, click a few links… let me know what you think.  And thanks for reading my stuff!







Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

35 Responses to The Question You Should Ask Before You Ask “What if?”

  1. Hey, when did you get the new digs? Nice.

    I totally agree. I go through a lot of “what ifs” a day, but for an idea to really grab me enough to write it, I have to have something deeper that calls to me about that story. Betrayal, family, irony, belief, secrets & their consequences, trust: those seem to be some of my favorites.

    On a side note, it looks like your feed settings have been changed to partial feeds. If that’s not intentional (I prefer full feeds as a reader and a blogger), you can change it back to full feeds by going to Settings > Reading > “For each article in a feed, show” and selecting Full Feeds (click Save to have it take effect.)

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    This is one of those problems I’ve beaten my head against often in the last couple years, but I think I finally found my personal answer. If it doesn’t have an underlying theme (current project that’s still in the planning phases is about faith, and not just the religious kind) then I don’t care, because that’s where I’ve come to find resonance.

  3. Great post. I’ve been running up against this lately–trying to get away from writing stories that are technically adequate but that elicit little feeling from me and by extension from my readers–and I think what you’re saying here also speaks to that idea of author voice. A large part of my voice, I think, is wrapped up in the stories I tell when I’m most following my passions.

  4. @ Jordan — changed it back for now, may continue to tinker and tweak. Readers trump everything, so I hear you. Thanks. L.

  5. Jade Morgan

    I really love this post, not really because this is something new to me, I am one of those people who has no shortage of ideas.

    But this post really puts it into words, and places the knowledge in a deeper part of me that will help me in the future to take time to screen all my ideas, without so much drama of..”Oh I love this idea, so why can’t I write it?” …. I used to struggle with that, because my ideas take a lot of evolving, I am always trying to write outside of my passion, to expand myself as a writer. But perhaps that sort of thinking is wrong.

    I should stick with my passion and make it mine. Or at least that’s what I take away from this.

    Thanks LB, always a pleasure.

    Your loyal student

  6. Colleen

    Great post Larry! TY! Very timely as well! I have a ton of story ideas running around in my head and I have been trying to figure out why I can’t get them out and onto paper. NOW it makes perfect sense!!! Ideas are everywhere, but if you aren’t passionate about it, probably not going to happen.

    Loved your reference to the new show Alcatraz. I too have a show that I am addicted to, Revenge, and I wish that I had come up with the concept.

  7. Carrie Anne

    This really made a light bulb go off on all those ideas that spark over a shared glass of red. Thanks! And the site looks wicked, too.

  8. Art Holcomb

    GREAT post, Larry!

    Absolutely the best (and maybe the only real) question to ask has to be: Is this idea worth a year of my life? Every idea must jump through a number of specific hoops before it moves into the realm of being seriously considered worthy of a writer’s precious time. And the passion for that idea – that mixture of exciting wonder and real fear – has to still be there after that analysis. It’s like dating and marriage, but perhaps more serious in a way – you can never get that time back

    All writers have but one and only one life. You have to make it count!


  9. Hi Larry,
    First, the new site looks terrific–So, kudos.
    Second- WOW! I tell ya, this post is a real eye-opener. As it happens, I write YA time-travel. It is, and always has been, my passion…My deepest desire.
    I went to a conference last year, and a VERY big person in the publishing world crushed my heart, when she told me (in front of 150 people) that Time Travel was not “in”… that is was a hard sell and would probably never go anywhere.
    So.. demoralized, I went home and tried and tried to focus in on one of the other millions of ideas that I email to myself daily.
    I started several. A couple of them–like your matroness story–are pretty cool. It’s just…I wasn’t feeling it..
    I knew what I loved. So.. I went back and began re-writing my time-travel book .
    Sometimes, it’s difficult to know who to listen to, and who to tell to suck it.
    It’s so easy for people like you– teachers and demi-gods (lol) to us “aspirings”–to crush our poor little dreams.
    Thanks, Larry, for never doing that. For lifting us up, while telling us the truth.
    U da Man.

  10. Wow great post! And that’s exactly how I do choose an idea. I keep an Ideas Copybook and it’s almost full, but maybe only one or two can drive me to obsession, madness. These are the ideas that I can easily write about.
    I love your new blog design! 🙂

  11. Ttue. You can’t make a novel from every what if idea, but hang onto those what ifs. Write them in a notebook. You never know when you’ll be working on a novel and find the perfect scene that just needs a bathroom attendant and her wealth of overheard, potentially dangerous, knowledge.

  12. Thanks for confirming the most important idea about ‘what ifs’: they need to create an “obsession in one’s mind.” Good timing for me to read this as well. I’m doing a lot of brainstorming, coming up with some decent ideas, but none that have floated my boat yet. It’s always good to be reminded of the target we are shooting for.
    Nice redesign of website, too.

  13. Marcia

    Lol, this reminds me of being in a restroom at a J’ailai game in Tijuana, Mexico in 1986. We were there on a tour trip on a Medical Conference from Hotel Coronado in San Diego. My husband watched our seats while I said, “come and get me if you don’t see me in 5 minutes”. When I got to the restroom, a little old lady was passing out 1 square of toilet tissue to each woman entering the bathroom. Now, there’s a story idea.

  14. Love the face lift. The new site looks clean and nice. I’m getting old though, and I wouldn’t mind a bigger font… 🙂

    I have to ruminate on a story idea in my head for at least six months before I know if it’s right for me. I have to keep it to myself, if I mention my idea to someone out loud, it almost always kills it. I don’t know why.

  15. Thank you for these thoughts and the humor you provide while expressing them. As a professional artist, such posts make as much sense when applied to a painting (changing a few words, of course).
    I’ve learned so much by subscribing to your site and apply it in my teaching of painting as well as non-fiction writing.

  16. Just a year of my life? Dang, I must be doing it wrong 🙂

  17. On the way into work I heard this story about a fifteen-year old street musician trying to earn college tuition. When it didn’t work out, she borrowed friends’ prom dresses, joined beauty pageants, and–wow!–she became Miss Washington. That’s a what-if, I said excitedly. And then I said, oh, but it’s about pageants.

    I love your idea, Larry. Really. I’ve been in a lot of ladies rooms and could write this story. What if a blogee stole an idea from a blogger?

  18. Fiona

    This post resonated a lot. Its also a parallel for life – don’t waste time and effort on the stuff that “doesn’t float your boat”.

    Nice one – thanks.

  19. Great post, Larry! This is why I might outline a book and then never do anything with it. I still have friends wanting me to write some of my old ideas but they will remain just ideas for a reason.

    I’ve added this to my favorites. Thanks!
    I love the new look of your site too. It looks much cleaner.

  20. Larry – The site looks great and the mail chimp pop up worked without a hitch – great job! Thanks, as always, for spectacular information on this mysterious addiciton we share.

  21. Great read, thanks!

    I’ve dealt with this question on a number of occasions, which is why I have my solid WIPs, and the pile of ideas that’s still bubbling.

    My ? for you is, do you consider it time-worthy to let an idea bubble while you work on other things, and then see if there are ways to blend it with something else? Or see if it eventually does ring a tune to your fancy? Or do you think it’s best to just let those smaller ideas pass into oblivion and never think about them again?


  22. I’ve been getting your posts via email, but I came over today to check out the new look. I like it. Also signed up for your new offer. Looks like you have a lot of exciting stuff going on. I agree wholeheartedly with your post. I have lots of ideas bouncing around in my head, but I only go with the idea that just won’t let me rest until I explore it further.

  23. Dre

    My rss reader will only show me the first few lines of your post now. I don’t think that’s an improvement.

  24. spinx

    Damn it!_______________Da-YUM!!

    Larry, Larry……oh Larry..

    You sure are full of BIG guns this past two months! BIG, time saving guns!! (Can you even say that??!)

    HAHAHA—and just like this- here too it clicked. And boy did it ever this time around! God…it was giving me a headache. I kept going back to the “what if?”, but it never really got me going the way I felt it should.
    Boy, was I stupid.

    It´s just been a minute, and……well……..I am already shaking my head at my shortsight.

    What a feeling! Truly great.
    As if I had been searching for that one sentence to set it straight all along. Appearing at the back of my mind, but never really clear enough to pick it out. And now that I have read it- it feels as if it was me who wrote it.

    My “What if’s?” where too superficial to ever get me anywhere fun and dramatic. I knew for a while now that I was missing something. That one piece to make the puzzle work.
    Everytime I played that game with movies I enjoyed, I got a proper result- I got an “What if?” that lead me to action.

    And I didn´t even read the other half of your post!


  25. @zae — great question. Don’t think there’s an answer that’s better than any other, nor an opinion. I do think that if an idea has chops, even if you don’t recognize it right off, it’ll linger, or come back to you. Or it might evolve if you let it simmer, might even evolve if you toss it and it returns home. Time is often a great vetter of ideas, and ideas are like love sometimes: if you let it go and it never returns, maybe it never was. Thanks for reading SF — L.

  26. My first reaction was “Naw. When I get ideas like that, I start them and bang, in a week I’ve got a rough. Within two pages it turns into something I’m passionately involved in, gets deep and wide, gets real as soon as it goes live.”

    That happens with the ones I really do write. They’re starting points, not entire plans. Then I remembered all the ideas I get for novels that aren’t in genres I read. I just recognize that if someone wrote it, that’d be a good book.

    I jot all my ideas anyway because they’re a rich source of starting points. I can’t always tell at the moment if I’d get bored by page five or set fire to it within the first page and be unable to put it down. Often it gets set aside because it’d take too much research to do it justice – all the ideas I’ve gotten for historical novels come in that category.

    Sometimes they come back again as something much less than a novel though. The main character of the off idea turns into an incident character, not even a side character but a walk-on. That walk-on has more depth and richness than if I just sketched a cliche. I know what she would’ve been if she’d been the romance novel heroine, who she’s sleeping with. 90% of her backstory or even 99% of it is offstage but her having that depth makes her a much richer encounter even if she’s only sketched in a few paragraphs.

    She went live enough to be a real character and the world of the book is richer for it. The parts I fudged but didn’t research, they’re not onstage and not subject to the same degree of fact checking.

    Also, I’ve done time travel novels. They’re a kick. They take total immersion for me and will usually contain a lot of surprises. Like all speculative fiction, it’s important to settle on the rules of time travel and any consequences while writing and stay consistent with the backstory – but it makes plotting a delightful maze of surprises and character revelations. People confronting their youth and their illusions about what they were really like at that age can be a fun twist in it.

  27. Also, sometimes a good idea emerges in fragments. None of them are strong enough to support a book on their own, but the whole catches fire as soon as I see how they’re all connected. Usually the ones that wouldn’t float my boat on their own don’t need that much depth to take the place they belong in – they’re backstory to something completely different.

    Once I identify which world they’re in, they go in the right bin and become useful. So I store it all and that just keeps the idea-forming process green and growing. There is probably a happy medium between trying to write everything you think of and stifling bad ideas so thoroughly you stifle the good ones with them and sweat for years trying to get an idea for a novel.

    It’s why I waste 30 seconds typing them up – if they still come back again I know I’m on to something.

  28. Great post, Larry! Really explains a lot and makes evaluating ideas much simpler. I’ll keep this post in mind as ideas come to me from now on.

    And great face lift to the site. Nice and fresh looking.

  29. Pingback: Link Love for Writers « Hunter's Writing

  30. Another great post. Outstanding side effects of Larry’s posts are the interesting and informative comments the readers produce. They often increase the learning factor.

    After reading this post, I asked myself what “passion” pushed me, because I know something did. I reached the conclusion that my passion was the theme. All my published stories are based on acceptance – by the town, by the schoolmates, by the sweetheart, by herself. I think pinning that knowledge down will help me with future stories.

    BTW, I like the new look, but I’d be happier with a larger type size on the post. Maybe the same size as the comments? I know I can enlarge the type with Control-+, but that makes it too big. I also liked having all your book covers on the main page. More of an enticement to check them out, imho.

    Everything else looks good and clean.

  31. Pingback: Interspiration #1142012 « Asrai Devin- the Maven of Mischief

  32. Great post, Larry. I agree. I was just talking to a friend about writing genres based on what’s selling. For one, writing to sales trends isn’t a good idea because by the time you’re done with the book, the trend could have passed. And two, to write a great, say, sci fi book, you need to read sci fi books, and if it’s not your passion, you’ll have a hard time getting through them.

  33. Pingback: Inspiration and Ideas « Fantasy In Motion

  34. Pingback: Top Ten Posts of 2012

  35. Leon Davis

    Maybe you are denying your feminine side….The tip : giving your web sight a face lift instead of an overhaul, and sending it to boot camp…or Spring Camp.