You + What If?
Idea generating a story only you can tell
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Do you ever find yourself having an idea and shutting it down before you even begin to explore it?
Writing out What ifs? can help avoid that.
I love What ifs? because they focus on the possible and help us open up our minds, which is particularly useful for writing creatively.
You + What If? is based on an exercise I did with my screenwriting students this year, and they all got terrific results. It’s an idea generating prompt that can work well for many genres—although I find it particularly suited to longer form narrative genres like long short stories, film and TV scripts, and novels.
I recently came up with an idea for my current writing project using this prompt.
What You’ll Need
Use your favourite pen and a notebook or paper.
Alternatively you can use sticky notes on a blank wall or board, a word document, or a notes or brainstorming app.
You + What If?
This exercise can be done in stages.
Spend as little as ten-minutes a day or as much as 30-60 minutes.
I don’t recommend spending longer than 60 minutes on it in one sitting.
You can also do this exercise over several weeks or have it as an ongoing project.
Divide your notebook into three columns.
In column one, make a list of around 10-30 worlds that you are a part of or deeply familiar with. These worlds could be school clubs, sports teams, hobbies, relationships, jobs, etc. Be as specific as possible about the world and/ or your relationship to it.
Pick one of these worlds, and in column two write out a series of details associated with that world such as lines of dialogue, images, memories, summaries, etc.
In column three, make a list of 30 to 50 What ifs? for this world. Do this quickly. Don’t worry if the What ifs? are outrageous. Just get as many down as fast as you can. They can be mundane, dramatic, speculative.
Pick one of these What ifs? and free-write for 15-30 minutes. Don’t worry about what you are writing.
Set this writing aside and come back to it on another day. Review your writing and see what you can use from this brainstorming material.
Repeat this exercise with the rest of your worlds until you come to an idea that you are excited to write about. Consider mixing and matching worlds and What ifs?
Even if you don’t get to the What if? part of the exercise, you will have a large list of topics that you can write about or drawn on.
Let me know if you tried this exercise and how it went.
Madeleine Thien Reads “The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain” by Yoko Ogawa, New Yorker Fiction Podcast
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