The best question: What if?

When writing creatively this question has been my most powerful weapon. As a writer you have to possess this boundless curiosity for what could happen next. It probably started in my early teens reading Fighting Fantasy novels, do you remember them? Where you had to choose what to do in the story before flicking to page xx to find out what whether you made a deadly mistake or had cleverly outwitted the villain of the piece. Then you make another choice, and so on until you either complete the adventure or end up dead in some alleyway. In the book I mean, not in real life. ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ was my favourite if I recall correctly, and guess what – I just found the Fighting Fantasy website while writing this post, they are still going after all these years. Who needs a Playstation? 

I ramble. Getting back to my point, this ‘what if’ approach is fundamental, a question any creative writer has to ask themselves repeatedly when putting the flesh on the bones of their novel. Ideas sometimes come to us through the Ideas Channel, but the image isn’t always clear, the idea needs some amending, or it simply doesn’t give us the full picture. I like to use a combination of left/right brain thinking to plough through this uncertainty. I ask ‘what if’ and I mind map the results. You know, those charts with loads of radial lines and multiple colours? 

This may sound a bit basic but this approach can take you to some very interesting places. Mind maps can be used to provide direction to an idea, expanding certain points in a logical fashion like: 

  • Exploring a new concept: Let’s assume for a moment that music is actually a magical power. What does that mean, what would happen?
  • Either/Or choices: What could happen if your main character does X – which really seems stupid at the time, but is in keeping with their personality; or do they instead do Y, where does this take our story? Better, worse, indifferent?
  • Getting the story from A to B: How do we get the characters to move their backsides to the mountains where the Arch villain is waiting for them with the Nasty Weapon of Ultimate Doom? What are our options, and how do these work out if we follow them to their conclusion?

This approach is also a bit like the i-ching, flipping a coin, working out probability, a bit like a chess grandmaster has to analyse all the options before making a move. One could say that writers, being creative types aren’t like that, we need that creative muse to be upon us. To be fair, when ‘what if’ is overused it can reduce a novel to a pile of formulaic  drivel. But it can also lend a keen edge to novel writing or give us a reality check that our character really wouldn’t do that, or the consequent plot pile up is best avoided. It can also throw in some left-field ideas we weren’t expecting. So speaking personally, I am glad ‘what if’ is in my writer’s toolbox.

About Scott Foley

Scott Foley is a British fantasy writer based in Manchester. He is author of Knight of Aslath and the Dreaming God Chronicle. Brought up on a steady diet of Tolkien, roleplaying games and a never-ending fascination with the question ‘what if?’, writing fantasy novels seemed the only sensible and worthwhile thing to do with his life. Knight of Aslath is his first novel, and he is currently working on the sequel Warlords of the Dreaming God. Both novels form the beginning of the Dreaming God Chronicle and are set in the fantasy world of Teth-Kiran. Knight of Aslath is available on Amazon, and you can find out more about Scott's work at: