For writers, those are two of the most important words in the English language. Small but powerful, they turn ordinary men and women into the heroes and heroines of romantic fiction. “What if…” transforms the mundane world into imaginative fantasies, incredible realms that might exist in the future, or endearing remebrances of past times.
Readers might think a writer uses those two little words to generate story ideas. Yes, of course, we do.
- What if a woman living a glamorous life in a big city had to return home to a small, rural community? That was the idea behind Summertime, my story of a stage star who spends a life-changing summer back home in Kansas.
- What if a woman with no domestic skills had to find a husband? Yep, that “what if” thought turned into Not the Marrying Kind, the first book of my “Sunset” series.
- What if a town accidentally hired a woman as sheriff? That’s the idea behind my current WIP, The Sheriff Wore Skirts. It’s scheduled for publication in January and will be my fifth story about the good folks of Sunset, Colorado.
You might think that once we’ve come up with a premise for a story, once we have an interesting “what if” to work from, we can retire those words and move on to writing. Nope. Throughout the process of crafting a story, “what if” continues to be an intriguing question.
Writers generally fall into two camps: plotters and pantsters. You’ve heard those terms before, I’m sure. Plotters like to plan stories out before they write. Pantsters take off with an idea and go wherever it leads them. Successful stories can come from either approach, and regardless of which writing method an author uses, “what if” plays an important role.
Although I lean more toward planning than “pantsing”, I rely on “what if” to provide me with lots of ideas and possibilities for the stories I write. As I’m putting together different scenes, I let my imagination wander, and my first story outlines will be littered with notes on POSSIBILITIES. That’s exactly how I write it. All in capital letters at the end of a scene…or, at times, right in the middle of a scene.
Yesterday, I was playing around with ideas for The Sheriff Wore Skirts. I know the storyline. I have a synopsis I’m working from. But the fun comes from figuring out exactly how the story events will unfold. I was sketching out a scene where hero and heroine come together and a bit of conflict occurs between them. As I wrote, my subconscious was writing alongside me, looking for possibilities I hadn’t consciously considered.
Then came that little nudge to my brain. Hey, wait!
- WHAT IF this takes place at the bath house?
- WHAT IF she sees him naked?
Later, as I explored other scenes, more little nudges came.
- WHAT IF he comes home one evening and finds that woman in his bed?
- WHAT IF the sheriff’s office is ransacked?
- WHAT IF he suspects she’s lying?
Each time a writer asks “What if…” new possibilities emerge. At times, we can get carried away, of course, and part of the writing process involves choosing the right possibilities and saving the other ones for other days and other stories.
At this stage of the writing process, I can’t promise you the heroine’s going to see the hero naked in the bath house scene. I don’t know for sure whether the hero will have an unexpected — and unwanted — bed partner. Maybe the sheriff’s office will get ransacked; maybe not. What I can promise is that as I continue working on the story, I’ll be asking the same question as I write each scene.