Every work of fiction is a ‘What If’. With Science Fiction the What If is more obvious. “What if we had the ability to travel back in time?” “What if we could bring dinosaurs back?” “What if we could clone ourselves instead of having children?” But even contemporary fiction has a What If when you look closely. “What if a guy began a relationship with his best friend, but then the girl he’s had a crush on for years suddenly shows an interest?” Whatever scenario the story is dealing with – that’s the What If.
It’s more commonly known as the Premise. It’s a scenario that gets the reader wanting to follow the story to find out what happens. For that reason, you can usually find the What If or Premise by looking at the synopsis on the back of the book, or the back of the DVD case.
(Star Wars and The Matrix Spoiler Alert)
There are two things every story needs to do with the What If in order to be a great story: the story needs to take the What If to its natural conclusion, and then not stay there – to take it a Step Further. If the What If is not properly addressed, by taking it to its natural conclusion, then the audience will feel like you haven’t done the premise justice. Because you haven’t. You’ve avoided the reality of what would naturally happen. You need to at least go there, even if only temporarily or as a trick, in order to show your audience that you know what you’re talking about and that you plan on dealing with the issue in a believable manner.
On the other hand, ending the story with the natural conclusion can be predictable and boring, and often times a bummer. This is why it’s a good idea to ‘not stay there’ and take it that ‘Step Further’ once the natural conclusion has been addressed. At least, don’t stay in the natural conclusion for too long.
If I wrote a novel in which someone arranged to have me get into a fight with Bruce Lee, the What If is: “What if I got into a fight with Bruce Lee?” And the natural conclusion is: Bruce Lee wins. If I don’t at least let the story go there, then the audience will feel like I’m not being realistic with the premise.
But that conclusion is also very predictable and makes for a boring story. But the Step Further could be that just when it looks as though I’m about to lose I get up and say “Aha! But little did anyone know that this whole time I’ve been secretly training under Chuck Norris!” In which case I still lose, but you get the idea.
Most What Ifs involve impossible odds, because stories aren’t usually exciting otherwise. And the natural conclusion to impossible odds is that the hero loses. The story has to at least make it look as though things are heading in that direction, because otherwise the audience will feel like the story is unrealistic. The Step Further usually involves some last-minute piece of inspiration or motivation that pushes the hero to go further, delivering the one good punch that knocks down the villain. Those are the kinds of endings that audiences generally want, because we want to believe that we can face impossible odds too, and overcome them, even if we (understandably) seem to be losing a lot of the time.
Neo takes on an Agent for the first time. Everyone has been told to avoid Agents because they’re impossible to kill, even for Neo. The natural conclusion is Neo dies. The Step Further is that Neo had to die in order to fulfill a prophecy about him being The One. He comes back to life, seeing the Matrix for what it really is, and is able to destroy the Agents with no effort whatsoever.
Luke Sywalker takes on both Darth Vader and the Emperor. The natural conclusion is he’s no match for the Emperor’s power (at least not after using up his energy on fighting his father). The Step Further is that Vader’s heart is turned, and Vader himself takes out the Emperor to save his son.
My next post will begin a three-part series on how to get The Message of your story across more effectively.
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.