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Fiction: The Facts - What If...

So you are ready to start on a project.

Successful stories start with a premise - a question - a what-if? situation that immediately gets the audience interested and intrigued.

  • What if a governess falls in love with her employer? (Jane Eyre)

  • What if a poor boy unexpectedly inherits a fortune? (Great Expectations)

  • What would happen if aliens invaded the earth?

  • What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?

  • What if there was an evil conspiracy to poison the water supply and make us all mindless zombies?

Finding the right what-if? is crucial to finding your story structure. It's the essential first building block.

Take the genre romance formula. The basic spine of these stories is well known. A woman meets a man and they fall in love. But that is not what sends readers back to romance novels time and time again. They know what is going to happen at the end of the book. Indeed, they would not buy the books if they did not deliver the obligatory happy-ever-after. They are looking for the story of a pair of interesting, attractive and sympathetic people being subjected to the trials of love. They are particularly looking for conflict between the lovers and how it is resolved. In other words they are looking for a specifically romantic what-if situation.

What might happen if a tempestuous person collides with a headstrong person? What if a Duke falls in love with a milkmaid? What if an eco-warrior falls for a property developer? What if a cop falls for a criminal? Or to use a film example - what if a Hollywood actress falls for a mild-mannered London book shop owner, as in Richard Curtis' Notting Hill?

These stories have plenty of go in them because they at once introduce the element of conflict. What common ground can there be between the Hollywood star and the book shop owner? Isn't the policeman supposed to be pursuing that criminal female mastermind, not wooing her?

Two interesting characters placed in opposition to each other creates a conflict, and makes an excellent story premise.

Imagine two astronauts on a space station. A sexy US Navy man and a sexy Russian female scientist - Todd and Larissa. Both coming from different worlds and stuck alone in space trying to repair a dodgy space station. The stakes are high. There is only so much time and so much oxygen. They have to get along. But there's a real personality clash and it's a constant struggle, and this makes their job of repairing the space station much much harder. And the stakes go up, making the story inherently more exciting.

Spotting a good premise for a story, hunting the elusive what-if? thought that will sustain the action of a story is like bird watching. You have to have your binoculars with you at all times. But there are places you can look to make it easier.


Some writers are avid newspaper readers and find seeds for their work in those odd little stories. Good news is no news, as the saying goes, and newspapers are full of bad news resulting from conflict situations which can make you wonder how and why that situation arose. For example, Henry James got the idea for The Spoils of Poynton from a court case he read about in the Times.

Warning - don't spend so much time reading the newspaper that you forget to write. It can easily turn into a displacement activity.


This can be the inspiration for the straight historical novel about Queen Elizabeth the First or a novel in a particular historical setting.

Traditional stories

Pride and Prejudice is often referred to as a Cinderella story, as is Jane Eyre. The poor heroine bags herself a wealthy man, her own particular Prince Charming. Traditional stories are full of rich meaning and their patterns can be played with endlessly to come up with something fresh. Greek myths to native American stories all have something to offer.

Stories by other writers

This isn't copying. It's just that some stories have situations and conflicts that are universal and timeless. West Side Story was inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare borrowed that story from someone else and made it his own. Clueless reworked Emma by Jane Austen, while Cruel Intentions was inspired by Les Liasons Dangereuse.

Personal experience

The autobiographical first novel is a classic cliché now but sometimes your own life can be a springboard into fiction.


Ideas are everywhere - you just have to know how to find them, by which I mean putting yourself into a receptive, speculative state. When you pick up a stone and see the teeming woodlice scurrying about beneath, don't replace the stone at once in disgust but wonder how their world works. Anywhere can yield the story gold you are looking for. A delayed flight is an opportunity, not an inconvenience. Look at your fellow passengers. Imagine who they are and what their lives are like. Why are they travelling?

Things happen all around you that can provoke a story idea. Go on a long bus ride across town and you will see and hear things that might contain something to spark your imagination. What about all those old family stories you've heard - what was it that Grandfather's brother did that was so dreadful that the rest of the family never spoke to him again? How did that make him feel and what was he like? What was his side of the story? You may soon find from such fragments you have the idea you have been looking for.

When you have located an interesting possibility, I'm afraid it isn't just a question of recording it in a little book like a bird watcher. Write about it, yes, but with robust disrespect. Don't allow the original circumstances, that newspaper report or that juicy piece of office gossip to rule your imaginative process. This is just raw material and you can do what you like with it. And firstly you have to test it. You have to kick it around, pull it to pieces, put it back together again and then turn it upside down to see if there is enough in it to sustain a proper story. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this an idea that really interests me?
  • Is this an idea with legs?
  • Is there something at stake for the character at the heart of the story?
  • Is there a big dramatic question?
  • The end of it all - has the idea got the potential for a satisfying resolution?

Let's explore these questions in detail.

Is this an idea that really interests me?

This is important, as you can sometimes find that an idea, especially one that someone puts to you, is not the right story for you to develop. For example, a friend enthuses, "Hey, I had this really great idea for a story for you," and then rambles on at you for ten minutes about aliens secretly running hospitals. Do not be seduced by such rambles, even if the idea sounds really exciting and you are feeling short of inspiration. Listen to the suggestions, but critically. You may conclude it is an interesting scary idea, and that your friend has got it just right, that this is a good story idea and you want to take it further.

But if you hate the idea of aliens, hospitals leave you cold, and you can't get a handle on it at all, don't worry. The great thing about being receptive to ideas is that the more you are open to suggestions, the more you will get, from all sorts of sources. It's like turning up the volume, or developing a focus.

It's crucial to find a story and a subject that you can personally commit to, that fascinates and intrigues you, let alone anyone else. Marketing considerations aside, personal passion for a story and a subject will show in your writing, making the whole story more convincing and involving.

So choose with care!

Is this an idea with legs?

OK, so we like the idea of Aliens Secretly Running Hospitals. It says something - it is scary and intriguing, but it isn't a story yet. For a start it isn't very specific. Stories are always specific. They are about particular people in particular places doing particular things. So the next questions to ask are: which aliens and which hospitals?

This is where the fun starts because you can now do what you like. There is no right answer to either of those questions: only those answers that come out of your imagination and please you. There is a lot of self-amusement in story making. You can be a child again, and play make-believe.

Your first job is perhaps to invent a race of aliens. Will they be hairy little grey ones who suck detergent out of a straw and leave odd sticky marks? Or do they all look and sound like super-fit Australians, except that they can't hold their beer? The thing here is to come up with something that satisfies your own standards of plausibility. If you can't believe in this race of aliens, then your readers won't. And if the aliens don't work then the story won't work.

Having created your satisfactory aliens, you then have to decide why they have decided to secretly take over the hospitals. Are they doing research? Do they need our blood? Are they evil in their intentions or are they trying to save our lives with their superior medical skill? The technical word for this is motivation, and it is fundamental to good storytelling. It is the string that holds up the puppets and makes them dance. Without adequate motivation, characters in a story fail to convince the audience of the need for their actions.

Who is the focus of the story?

Are the aliens the centre of this story? Or are they going to be discovered by someone else? Who is this story actually going to be about? Who are the principal cast members that the audience can identify with and become emotionally involved with? Once again, at this point of testing the premise you have plenty of choices.

  • Female alien sent undercover to ransack human hospitals for life-giving organs is horrified by the job she is asked to do and tries to stop the trade.
  • Female alien sent to secretly heal sick humans falls in loves with human doctor and blows her cover.
  • Woman doctor discovers that her colleagues in the hospital are not human but blood-sucking alien monsters.
  • Ambitious male doctor forges uncomfortable alliance with an undercover alien healer in order to promote the reputation of the hospital and his own career.

These are all expanded versions of the original what-if? suggestion, and they still leave lots of doors open for development and transformation. None of these stories has an ending. They are just beginnings, but they all have potential to be turned into fully worked and satisfactory stories. Some of them could be combined in order to make a more powerful whole.

What all of these examples also have is a focus on an individual character. And that's the next step in developing a what-if? scenario - characterization.

Is there something at stake for the character at the heart of the story?

Storytelling is in effect an act of manipulating the emotional responses of the reader. So having something really important at stake is one of the key things to make readers and audience care about the fates of the characters. It is always a good question to ask when making a decision about the direction of the plot, or a character's actions in the plot.

What will they feel if he does that or if that happens? Will they like him more or less?

Look for story ideas where the characters have something important to gain or lose in the course of the story. It does not have to be earth-shattering but it does have to be convincingly important to the person involved.

For example:

  • A man wants to get rich.
  • A woman wants to find her adopted son.
  • A detective wants to find the murderer.
  • A couple want to start a new life.
  • A prince wants to find the girl he danced with.
  • A wolf wants to find something to eat.

WANT is the important thing here.

We are not talking about whims. A character might want a Gucci Kelly bag but it would not make a satisfactory story just to describe the complicated business of getting hold of a bag - how she had to get herself on the waiting list and then wangle a raise out of her boss. Why not? Because ultimately it's just a bag, and even if it is made of beautiful leather, handcrafted and totally desirable, in the end a bag is just a bag.

But what if wanting a bag is driven by something more fundamental? Jealously, perhaps. Maybe there is a girl she was at school with who always had everything and who has just got engaged to the man our heroine secretly loves. A girl who has a Gucci Kelly bag. So our heroine thinks: at least she can have the bag, to assuage the raging envy that is overtaking her. She can't have that girl's life, let alone her fiancé, but she can save her pennies and get the bag. So the struggle to get the bag represents something bigger, and something important to her. Especially when she gets the bag and she finds she feels no different.

So the ultimate desired destination has to be something important to the individual involved. Something that will ruin their entire existence if they don't achieve it.

Is there a big dramatic question?

The audience likes to have something to worry about. The outcome of any story questions raised should not immediately be obvious.

For example:

  • Will they manage to stop the planned assassination of the president?
  • Who will the heroine choose to marry - the right or the wrong man?
  • Will Al overcome the odds and run a successful restaurant?

Let's look at that third example in more detail.

Will Al overcome the odds and run a successful restaurant?

Well, the answer to this depends on two things - the character of Al himself and the forces of opposition that are lined up against him. Premise (what-if?), Character (Al) and things that happen in the story are all intimately related.

Questions to ask and to answer might then be: Who is Al? What is he like? Why does he want to run a successful restaurant? What is going to stop him? What odds does he have to overcome?

Thinking about these questions, you might come up with these sort of answers. Or not. But this is what occurred to me: The restaurant is in a bad part of town. There is an awful smell of drains. Mario's Pizzeria is brighter, better and cheaper. Also, maybe Al doesn't like cooking. Perhaps Al is only running the restaurant because his mother told him on her deathbed: "Keep the family restaurant going no matter what." And for the coup de grace: Al has been struggling but failing to write a science fiction epic for the last five years.

These answers make me realise that the big dramatic question of the story is not just "Will Al succeed at running a restaurant?" but also "Can Al liberate himself from his dead mother's shackling legacy?"

The solution to such a situation might be: Al lets the restaurant to a keen young chef and goes away to write the novel he has always wanted to write. But now he understands what it should be about - not a war between alien planets but a rich saga about a family running a neighbourhood restaurant for three generations. The novel is a critical success and the restaurant is immortalised in fiction.

This example shows that the story so much depends on the sort of people that are in it. If Al had liked cooking, it might have been a different story altogether.

Has the idea got the potential for a satisfying resolution?

By this, I don't mean a happy ending. Can you answer the big dramatic question in a way that is satisfying and not contrived? What sort of ending do you want? Happy or sad? Triumphant or pessimistic? Life-enhancing or cynical?

At this stage of your planning you might not know the specifics of that ending. This is a chance for you to play with ideas and see what might work. It's like holding up lengths of material against a window and seeing it they look right. You don't have to decide yet - you just have to create some possibilities to chose from.

It may be that from this process of rumination, you come up with a very specific idea for the no-holds-barred finale to your piece, complete with invading army, exploding castle and redemptive self-sacrifice for the heroine.

Which is helpful, but it is worth remembering that although such planning is useful and desirable, it is best to leave a little intellectual space for the possibility of change. Staying flexible in the course of your writing, even while having well-laid plans, allows you to substitute better, more realistic solutions as you work on the piece - realistic solutions which work better for your story and characters.

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