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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Two Most Powerful Words: What If

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So often we writers get stuck in our stories. We get married to some of the things we set up. It HAS to be a hot air balloon get-away because that's what I envisioned when I first came up with the story. This couple HAS to have known each other since high school. The story is set in Philadelphia. It just is. And then, when we get frustrated, because something isn't working, it's like bashing our heads against a concrete wall. We get stuck.

What we need to do is get out two sticks of dynamite, one labeled "what" and the other labeled "if". Ignite those two words and blow your story UP. What IF the couple knew each other since high school and then learned they were actually siblings separated at birth? No, that's weird. Okay, what IF they found out they'd been seeing the same therapist? Eh. What IF one of them was having an affair with the therapist? No, no, what if they only met on page negative ten and hadn't known each other for years? What if this story isn't set in Philadelphia but in Miami? What if it's a jet ski get-away, not a hot air balloon get-away? What if this story is set in 1952 not the present? What if this whole script is actually a western? A sci-fi story? A horror story?

Nothing is more freeing than blowing your story out and asking some "what if" questions of it. Sometimes this is very hard to do and we need help. If you know other writers, throw a "what if" brainstorming session for your story. Invite a friend over, have some beer and pretzels, open your mind and just start what-iffing.

I had a friend over last night and we discussed this particular topic. I made up a horrible logline, not unlike loglines I see with some regularity: a bunch of college buddies get drunk one night and overturn a car. Really - I see scripts in which that's pretty much the story. And it's usually based on a true story that to the person involved, was pretty hilarious at the time. There's not much story there, as you can see. But, my friend said, what IF the car that they overturned belonged to the president of the university they are attending? What if the university president's daughter is dating one of the guys? What if this is law school and these buddies were about to graduate? What if the car itself as a 1955 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce? That had a bag of money in the trunk? Is this a comedy or a thriller? It could go either direction at this point. But now we have taken a "dude, it was so funny that time me and my friends flipped some dude's car when we were in college" script and begun to explore some interesting possibilities to write a unique story. Or at least some kind of story rather than a script which is a year in the life of some dude when he went to college. I pale when I think how often I see scripts about like that. For real.

Almost any story can be what-iffed to a better place. But you have to be willing to go to the ridiculous before you find what works. What if my main character is a talking ape? Okay, ha ha, very funny. But for real, what if my main character took a DNA test and inexplicably high amounts of Neanderthal genes were found? Whoa. Maybe that works, maybe that's insane. But you have to be willing to play with the details because it is those details that can both lock us up and free us through our willingness to change them. Just because, for four drafts now, this couple knew each other since high school doesn't mean that in this draft they have not. What does that open up in this story? Maybe everything. Maybe nothing.

Be willing to blow your story out with some what if's. A different era, genre, or simply a significant detail can take what was not really working and elevate it to a whole new level. I have heard tell of writers working on comedies who suddenly discovered they were actually writing a thriller. And suddenly, everything came together and was brought to a whole new - and totally different level.

Here is a hilarious video which illustrates my point hilariously:

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Luzid said...

As far as I'm concerned, whatiffing is the first step in coming up with any premise.

Heck, the logline you used wasn't even a logline until you started spitballing - no main character, no inner flaw and outer goal, no antagonist, no real *story* at all!

At the risk of sounding self-satisfied, the project I pitched to you only came about because my original premise was too close to another story, so I started brainstorming to get it to the one you heard.

One of the most enjoyable things about premise work is playing with ideas and seeing where they take you. Same with outlines - they're road maps, not paint-by-numbers instructions. Being too rigid with your concept to the breaking point is much less fun - and far less creatively rewarding.

T. Boone said...

"Here is a hilarious video which illustrates my point hilariously:"

What note would you give yourself on this sentence?

Anonymous said...

Julie, You are so bright and generous to try and help people with this blog. I can see you get your thoughts out and that can help you, but your extremly bright and it is nice to read this. Just wanted to tell you that-as a woman it is really nice to see another woman putting her voice, mind and opinions out there.

E.C. Henry said...

Great post Julie. Whatever you're feeding that hamster in your head, keep it up!

"What if's" are great story starters, but what I try to achieve is final state of story. Through rewrites a final form emerges. Once that die is cast I have a very hard time thinking of it as something other than what I settled on it was.

I do "what if" early on, and in the rewritting process, but after a while my stories do take on a final form.

The "what if's" you seem to be talking about are developlement execs broad stroke approach at story improvement(?!).

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Judith said...

Hi Julie,
Thanks for the post,it really resonates with me at the moment.I have just finished a pretty rigorous screenwriting class that last a year.I went in with one idea in particluar for a screenplay I wanted to write.I had told a friend about this idea and she loved it.During the course of that year my screenplay was taken apart by my teacher and fellow classmates with countless 'What if's'.I was resistant to the changes at first,but then embraced them.I feel I now have a much better screenplay because of it.However when I gave it to my friend to read...she was the one resistant to the changes and said that she preferred the other story...go figure.

Julie Gray said...

@T Boone - that I was being hilarious and ironic. Do you really think I could post content six days a week for two years and not catch that? It was on purpose, you doof :)