What If?

A few years ago, I stood barefoot in the middle of my back yard on an early June afternoon, curling the freshly cut grass between my toes. And I thought to myself while I cleaned up my lawn mower, “What if my entire property was just grass? No landscaping, no driveway or sidewalk, no house. Just pristine, green grass.”

Then I asked The “What If” Question: “What if I lived on a property like that?”

Six months later I wrote The Emancipation of Bartholomew Benson, the story of a possibly delusional, possible savior-of-humanity farmer, who is torn between raising dairy cattle and annihilating quantum artificial intelligences that threaten to take over the world right beneath our noses. Oh, and he lives in an underground bunker, covered by beautiful, luscious green grass. Of course.

As writers, we all know that crafting fiction is hard. I think it comes down to the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  When writing a novel, the logic in our stories has to make perfect sense during every single moment and every single scene. The logic has to be even more believable than the real world. People around you act irrationally all the time in the real world,  but if a character in a story acts irrationally the reader often loses the story thread because they fail to comprehend or empathize with the actions of the character. Your characters can perform extreme acts (i.e. hunt AIs masquerading as utility boxes in people’s basements), but their actions have to follow a logical pattern that the reader can comprehend and accept.

My solution to the uber-logical storyline constraint has been to keep my stories very simple, at least at conception. The simpler the premise, the simpler the maintenance of that thread of logic that the audience requires while reading my story. Reflecting back on my inspiration for my manuscripts, I see that the start of every story I’ve written has begun with one or two basic questions which I attempt to answer throughout the novel. These “What If” questions have typically fallen into three major categories.

Explore an Archetype

Many of the best stories start with a character that the reader will want to learn more about. For instance, “What would it be like to be the son of Bernie Madoff?” I wondered it last fall. The story of Bernie will be told many times in the press, and so it doesn’t really interest me all that much as an author. But what would it be like to be one of his offspring? That’s an interesting question. Of course, I write science fiction, not financial crime novels, so my eventual question became, “What would it be like if you were the brother of The World Destroyer?”

It’s a simple question. Sure, it’s a really big question, and it requires many different faceted answers to explore it. But the question itself is a simple one. You didn’t destroy the world. Your sibling did. What’s life like for you afterwards? What would it be like for the rest of the family? Questions I explored in Shatter the Moon last year.

 Pick a Set Piece

Another great way to start a story is to choose where the story will happen. “How could I live on a property covered in grass?” led me to my bunker-dwelling protagonist, Bart Benson. It wasn’t the basis of the entire novel manuscript, but it certainly got the ball rolling. Sometimes my set pieces are simple, like New York City; an environment that almost anyone can immediately embrace. But other times my story is inspired almost entirely by setting. For instance, “What if you were the only human alive that could breathe your planet’s atmosphere?” led me to Langford’s Leap, a lost colony where one young girl possesses survival skills none of her fellow colonists have shared for generations. I got to invent an entire novel that explained how the planet worked, why the colonists couldn’t survive on the surface, and why my protagonist was different. I added a bit more flavor – like she suddenly starts hearing voices in her head, and having her wishes granted from a mysterious, omnipotent power high above the failing colony – and suddenly had one heck of a story. But it started with a simple question: What if you can breathe, but no one else can?

Choose Your Own Adventure

Instead of starting with character or setting, science fiction lets us explore adventures that are only possible because of some new technology or discovery. For instance, “What if theme music played in your head during everything you did?” I’m not the first person to ask that question. In fact, it was directly inspired by an episode of Family Guy, where Peter Griffin asks for exactly that, with hilarious consequences. But what if? How would that work, exactly? What sorts of technology would have to exist to support such a construct? How would it affect the way you behaved, or interacted with others? What other types of technologies would spawn from this simple starting point? And what would the societal ramifications of all it be? Theme, my manuscript from a few years ago, took my main character on a delightful adventure through a seedy techno-pirate underworld exploring all of these things, which were born of that simple initial question.

This year, I asked myself, “What if I wanted to steal an asteroid?” It was followed by, “Who am I stealing it from? How would I do it? WHY would I do such a crazy thing? Is George Clooney available for the lead role?” (I’m still working on that last one). It was a simple question that struck me from out of the blue. And it led to a zany caper story with high-tech corporate espionage executed by bionic ballerinas, and splintered computerized fragments of consciousness invading space. It’s not done yet, and it promises to get weirder and weirder as it progresses. But it started with a simple question.

So, What If?

One of the reasons I love reading and writing science fiction is that its stories get to explore ideas that other genres cannot, simply because they are limited by the realities of the universe that currently surround us. That said, I still feel like the best stories, even in science fiction, are constrained by the need to have characters and plotlines that satisfy a consistent internal logic. So my advice is simple. Start simple. Choose Who, or Where, or How based on a simple “What if?” question. And then have yourself a delightful time trying to answer all the myriad questions that follow.


  • I do the same type of thing, asking questions about the things around me, but I like to ask about bigger themes. My manuscript this year was about identity and what defines it. It was fun to explore.

    • Ted says:

      I like pursuing the big themes as well. But my stories always start with something small and simple, and then I explore big themes from that seed point.

  • Ryan Schwartz says:

    I have to say that the “What If?” method of story creation is my favorite. I think I’ve used this method to create nearly every story I’ve written. In reality, I think all of these methods tie closely together and can all be used simultaneously to get the mind churning out ideas.

  • “What if …” and “If this goes on …” are the classic how-to-start-an-SF-story beginners, and they work nicely for just about every other story, too. Subconsciously, I probably use what-if more than the other for nearly all of my stories.

    What if nearly all of the world suddenly was annihilated? And a 16-year-old boy came out of a lead-lined storm cellar/bomb shelter to discover that all was not as when he entered it? There you go – my latest work-in-progress.

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