Writing the 'What if?'

15th September 2020
7 min read
19th August 2021

Joanna Briscoe considers the allure of ‘What if?’...

Joanna Briscoe

What if…?’ The question alone is so intriguing, it could form the beginning of a novel. 

I do often use the ‘What if?’ technique, because it both creates plot immediately, and it opens the mind in different directions. 

The idea for a novel comes to me in different ways: the first was quite frankly autobiographical, and subsequent novels have started with a character, a house, or even a scene that I can picture with sudden clarity. With my novel Sleep With Me, someone in real life I had barely met, mousy looking and quiet, seemed to be having a real effect on several people at a dinner party. So I thought, what if a character a bit like that starts having an impact on others, insinuating herself into their lives? I had to create those other characters, so I started with a happy couple, who meet the mousy woman, instantly forget her, then encounter her again. But it had to be more complicated, so I thought, what if the man’s closest friend also becomes entangled with this strange understated woman? What impact would she have, and what twists and clashes and misunderstandings would ensue? A plot was starting to build itself round an initial character and a question.

My great friend, the late Penny Vincenzi, who wrote seventeen bestselling novels, said to me she often used the ‘What if?’ question. She said she had a vague idea of where she needed to get to at the end of the novel, and there were various worlds she wanted to explore, but she started with that question. Her plots were endlessly intriguing and addictive, as her fans  and sales figures will attest.

And of course, that vital first question then breeds other ‘What if?’s. I layer the process with the same question, and the thought process goes something like this: Yes, but what if, instead of that, they did this? No, that’s preposterous. But is it? Well maybe not, actually. It’s quite exciting. And then, what if….?

As an author, you never want to go down a predictable route, and by simply asking, ‘What if?’, you can turn everything on its head. And by doing that, then asking that question again, you will surprise the reader, upend expectations, and hook them in. It’s the equivalent of brainstorming with a friend, which I also advocate. Once writers begin a novel, we are to an extent stuck in one groove, obeying an initial set of ideas even if they’re not quite working out. So sometimes, if I realise something’s just not satisfying me, or worse still, entirely stumping me, I’ll take the problem to my very small group of friends that I count as my ‘novel doctors’. We have a discussion. What happens is that they come up with an entirely different route, answer, or proposition, and often I’m thrown, because it wasn’t the way I was thinking at all, but they’ve opened up a new possibility, liberated me from the shackles of my now-static part of the novel, and refreshed my mind entirely. Often the answer isn’t exactly the one they suggest, but what they’ve done is open my mind to a different way of thinking about the problem.

Similarly, I’d suggest asking yourself ‘What if?’ not only when you’re stuck, but even when the writing is going well. It might spice it up, make it more unexpected and therefore more interesting. I always suggest a real brainstorming session to get a different view on a problem, or on the entire novel: I go rogue, free form, stream of consciousness, and jot down anything, however barking mad it sounds. There will be treasure nestling among the rubbish. I do the same thing for titles. I might cringe later at most of what I’ve written, but somewhere there there may well be some delicious little nugget of new story or new insight. 

As the impressive creative writing teacher Jurgen Wolff says in his guide Your Writing Coach, ‘Questions are a writer’s best friends, for they open the door to an almost unlimited treasure trove of subject matter.’ He agrees on the unedited approach: ‘To make the most of your “What if?” question, you have to let your mind run free…. Put yourself in a state of curiosity and jot down all the questions that occur to you.’ Wolff then suggests following up with the question, ‘Why?’

‘The whole premise of my book was inspired by “What If?”,’ says Melanie Cantor, whose novel Life and Other Happy Endings is published by Black Swan this month. ‘What if you were given three months to live, what would you do?  Everything grew from there.’ 

The question works for both plot and practical issues. Near the beginning, I will sometimes say, Hang on. What if I change the narrator? Or point of view even? The setting? Or change the point of view character in this scene? 

These practical questions can often loosen up the novel and help you find the best form for it. I then maintain control over the novel by making a lot of notes. However left-field my plot ideas might be, I can find the inspiration, use the questions above to craft what I’m doing, and then tether the plot by refining and editing the original inspiration, keeping a ‘Notes’ file alongside my manuscript. Often the hypothetical doesn’t work in reality, so then I go back to my notes and start again.

In my latest, sixth novel, The Seduction, the ‘What if?’ question was about a therapist. Dr Bywater is a seemingly lovely, soothing, wise authority figure who is there to help my protagonist Beth through a very difficult time. I then asked, What if the expert who is meant to help you turns out to be the most dangerous person of all? The novel is a tense, dark build up to the answer to that question, in which a whole life is upturned, love is uncertain, and our expectations of the world are throw apart.

Ask yourself ‘What if?’ and the answer might surprise you.

The Seduction by Joanna Briscoe is published by Bloomsbury, and available from Bloomsbury.com

Joanna Briscoe is the author of five previous novels, including the bestselling Sleep With Me, which was adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies. She has written for all the major newspapers and magazines in the UK, has been a columnist for the Independent and the Guardian, is a literary critic for the Guardian, and broadcasts regularly on Radio 4. She teaches on Faber Academy’s flagship Writing a Novel course, and has previously taught creative writing at Birkbeck, City University, and Arvon. She lives in London and has two children. Her new novel, The Seduction(Bloomsbury) is out now. @JoannaBriscoe

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