Friday, October 24, 2014

Conference Insights: "What If?" Ideas

New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben gave the central keynote presentation during the August 2014 Writer's Digest Conference East in New York City.

Anyone who reads or writes thrillers and suspense will probably know him, given how well he writes and how tremendously well-known he is.

With more than twenty-five novels to his credit, Coben's creativity and imagination seem limitless. Inevitably, he told the audience of writers during his keynote, readers ask him where he gets his ideas.

His reply: "I'm from the 'What if ...?' school of thought."

Basic Story Idea Generation

If you hail from the "What if ...?" school of thought, you probably start your stories and novels with a question or two. You might read something, overhear something, meet someone, or try something that gets you thinking, What if ...?

It's one of the quickest (though not necessarily easiest) ways to summarize your plot structure in just a few words.

The "What If ...?" Premise

Another well-known author is from the same school. Stephen King, with dozens of novels published, discusses what he calls premise in his memoir-slash-craft book, On Writing. In essence, he, too, starts his novels and stories with a premise.

For example, read the following premise, or "What if ...?" question, for one of King's popular horror novels:

> What if a mother and her young son are trapped in a car by a rabid dog in the wilderness?

You've just summarized his book, Cujo, with that very supposition.

And it is a supposition. It's what happens when you look around you and begin to put components or variables together in your mind and turn them every direction to see how they might fit together. If I take that snippet of conversation I heard at the airport ... and combine it with the front-page news story about Ebola from yesterday's paper ... and add a treasure hunter, and his beloved goat ... where does that lead me?

It's amazing how those kinds of ideas will generate enough material for a compelling novel.


Take possibilities out of the newspaper, conversations, random happenings, or by joining several ideas together:

> What if a girl born conjoined to her twin brother survived the surgery to separate them but refused subsequent surgeries, preferring to make the best of what fate dealt her?

> What if a businessman went to a bar for a quick drink after work on his way home to his wife and a gang member mistook him for a hired killer?

> What if a woman scientist moved to Mongolia to work with the locals to combat a rare form of influenza and became the first human to contract the disease?

Your turn.

# # #

Think about books you've read or movies you've seen, and try to summarize their content with a single "What if ...?" question.

What would the premise read if you summarized Jaws?

Disney's Frozen?

The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones?

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn?

Carolina Moon by Nora Roberts?

Caught by Harlan Coben?

Now you try. Work to summarize the plot of your current work-in-progress with a single "What if ...?" question (premise).

If you're not writing anything at the moment, or if you'd rather not use your work-in-progress, brainstorm five or ten different "What if ...?" questions that could become stories or novels. Pick the most evocative one, the one that really makes your imagination pulse, and write two hundred words. Where can you go with it now?

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