What If? A Writing Exercise to Generate New Ideas

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What if you had a foolproof way of finding new and exciting ideas for stories? If you’re like me, sometimes ideas flow like water over the falls, tumbles and tangles of the beginnings, middles, or ends of workable storylines. Other times, though, not so much. When that mighty river trickles to a stop and I despair of ever having the makings of a good story again, there’s one writing exercise I return to consistently: The What If.

This exercise isn’t magic, but it can seem like it, particularly when you’re stumped for ideas.   While you can look online for writing prompts, finding one you like in your genre can be difficult. Because this exercise lends itself to any genre or story length, it’s perfect for any writer.

The “What If” in a Nutshell

This is so simple it’s gonna make you mad you didn’t think of it earlier. Let me walk you through it:

  • First of all, you’re at a loss for a story idea.  Zero. Zip. Nada.
  • You have a favorite genre. This isn’t necessary, but it is helpful. For the purposes of this example, I’ll choose horror.
  • Finally, start with a simple, everyday scenario — like this:

A girl is walking down the street.

Now add your “what if” magic (insert magic wand sound effect here).

  • What if the street is in a bad neighborhood?
  • What if the street is the mirror image of a street in the underworld that runs just beneath it?
  • What if the girl is a shapeshifter?
  • What if she spontaneously shifts shape when a cloud passes over the sun?

You get the idea (pun intended). You can add any “what if” element to your scenario, and I encourage you to do so. Add things even if they seem ridiculous. Since you never know how something, or combination of things, is going to trigger a phenomenal idea for a kick ass story, make sure you write each one down.

Let’s try another one, just for fun. Here’s your scenario:

An old man is drinking coffee at the kitchen table. The sun is shining through the curtains.

  • What if the old man is an alien?
  • What if nanobots have infected his coffee?
  • What if the sun is artificial and the man doesn’t realize he’s living in a simulation?
  • What if the coffee was grown by an enslaved population on the planet Valdez where 12 million die every week to harvest it?
  • What if the coffee is addictive and it’s made from the stomach acid of the deadly Vorblesnox ?
  • Finally, what if there’s only one Vorblesnox left in the world and the old man has it chained in his basement.

Now You Try!

Make your own magic. Get scenarios from real life, grab them off a television show, or enlist a friend to shoot you a sentence or two. Then, unleash the brainstorm that’s brewing just beneath your surface. Just utter those two simple words and turn the most innocuous of scenarios into the sweetest story concept yet.

Go on, I dare you!

See you on the next page!

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