Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Cocktail Party What-Ifs
October 22, 2006, 12:43 pm
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Marcus Sakey

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, said:

A strong enough situation tends to render the whole question of plot moot…the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

In other words:

“What if vampires invaded a small New England town?” (Salem’s Lot)

“What if there was a centuries-old conspiracy to hide Christ’s relationship with Mary Magdalene?” (The Da Vinci Code)

“What if killers took over a high-rise, trapping hundreds of civilians and one policeman?” (The movie Diehard)

“What if you didn’t fall in love with your husband until after he’d died?” (And Only To Deceive, by Friend-of-Killer-Year Tasha Alexander. Now in paperback—go buy it.)

What-ifs are a great way to sum up a story, or, if you’re a writer, to find the heart of it. Asking yourself “What if?” until you have an answer that sends a shiver down your soul assures that a story has enough energy to carry you through the year it’ll take to write.

But there’s another kind of What-if, and that’s the one I’d like to talk about. I call ‘em Cocktail Party What-Ifs, and to me they’re one of the best things about genre fiction. Because these What-ifs not only suggest a story, but they also pose a question that the reader gets to answer for themselves.

For example, what if you found a bag full of money in a crashed plane?

Would you take it? And before you’re quick to say no, understand that we’re talking millions here. Enough to insure that you and yours will never have to worry, never scrimp and save. Never work two jobs to pay for college. Never need to stick with the career you hate instead of pursuing the passion you love.

Sounds pretty good when you put it that way. But then, of course, there’s the other side. That money came from somewhere. Your gain is someone else’s loss. You’re stealing from someone.

Okay, but for all you know it’s drug money, blood money. That would be okay, right? Don’t owe those guys anything.

Except wouldn’t that also mean someone might be coming after it?

See what I mean? Cocktail Party What-Ifs add a whole other layer to a novel, because not only do they provide the bones of a terrific story—I mean, just look at the above—but they also let readers ask themselves the same question. Suddenly, instead of simply reading a story, we’re having a conversation with the author, in this case Scott Smith, who used the What-if above as the basis of his novel A Simple Plan.

Here’s another.

What if the sexiest woman you’ve ever met, the kind of woman that has fired your dreams all your life, desperately wanted you—even though were a married man?

Would you have an affair?


Well, ramp it up. What if your marriage was mediocre, your job was murder, your daughter was ill, and your life was drab—apart from the rainbow of colors this illicit woman brought?

(Before anybody calls my wife, I’m talking about James Siegel’s Derailed here.)

Pow. We’re off again. Because sure, technically we all know adultery is bad. But don’t we deserve a little something for ourselves? I mean, it doesn’t have to cost anything, no one needs to know. We’re just reaching for a little joy.

Only, what if things aren’t that simple? What if you fall in love? What if someone spots you? Blackmails you, or worse?

You can see why I love these things.

So in closing, three questions:

Would you take the money?

Would you sleep with the girl? (With a wave of my wand, I grant immunity from spousal prosecution—this is a thought experiment)

What’s your favorite Cocktail Party What-If?


14 Comments so far
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I’m afraid to mention my cocktail party What If scenario, because what if the FBI is reading this blog? And what if they don’t get it that all I’m doing is a little hypothesizing? And what if they come to my house on a day when I’m not feeling well and my defenses are down, and I lip off to them instead of being all obsequious and apologetic. And what if just a week before the president kissed off 700 years of English Common Law, upon which our legal system is allegedly based, and killed habeas corpus? What if I’m disappeared forever for having a dangerous thought?

Wait, I think I just did a cocktail party What If? anyway!

Comment by Bill Cameron

Love this blog, Marcus. Such a great premise.
Okay, I’d take the money and use it for something good, figure out who it belonged to and make sure they benefitted entirely.

I wouldn’t sleep with the girl. 🙂

What if, what if, what if. I can’t begin to count them. My biggest are my own life experiences. What if I’d taken the track scholarship to Clemson? Would I be doing this now? Seriously doubtful. I’d have never gone to Stetson, transferred, took a semester off, worked on a political campaign, got interested in politics, did graduate school for a poly sci degree, met my husband, married him three years later… 11 years ago…

Or, if we were menat to be, would we have found each other regardless of the path I took? What if he’d been happy to stay in Tennessee and hadn’t ever come to DC? What if he’d gone to George Mason and gotten the Ph.D. in econ he wanted instead of GW?

And what if that car in front of me on the highway had exploded into flames? Would I have been able to save them? Would I be a hero, or would I have been scared and kept driving? It can go on, and on, and on.

I promise to think hard (once the banging stops) about a more world altering scenario. Thanks for the great topic.

Comment by JT Ellison

Marcus, thanks for the shout-out.

Great, great post.

-Take the money and run. Fast.

-Well, just how hot is the girl? Nah, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think I can get past the whole liking boys thing, so I guess I wouldn’t sleep with her. 😉

-What if I never finish writing this $#%& book? OK, not what you meant, I know. But I gotta make sure that What If doesn’t come true before I start playing with fun ones.

Comment by Tasha Alexander

Money? What money? I didn’t see any money, and yes, I always wheel around a suitcase like this.

Since I have no spouse to worry about, hell, yes I’d sleep with the girl.

As for my what ifs? What if my internet went out and I couldn’t get back on line? Whoa…now there’s a nightmare!!!

Comment by Brett Battles

Seems only fair…

1) I’d take the money and run. No question.
2) I’d sleep with the girl, too. Apparently I’m a bad person.
3) Ummm…well, I already admitted being a bad person. I think I’ve done my duty.

And for the rest of you sexy ladies out there, feel free to substitute “guy” for “girl” in the question. Not that we don’t all enjoy the titillation factor. 😉

Comment by Marcus Sakey

I realize I didn’t answer the questions, and goodness, I gotta answer the questions.

1) Definitely I’d take the money. That kinda money, hell yes. You take it and you go, that day, and a long way. Sort out the details later from a beach while sipping umbrella drinks.

2) I say no to the sex with the lady, because, well, fidelity is too tightly woven into my personal view of myself. Except if she said “Well, I’ll do have sex with Brett, but only as part of a threesome and Bill, you’re the wing man.” I would take one for the team to take care of my man Brett. But I wouldn’t enjoy it. At least not the Brett part. Well, maybe that part too, now that I think about it. Anyway…

Have I said too much? Sometimes I forget about the “inner” half in my “inner monologue.” 😯

Comment by Bill Cameron


Comment by JT Ellison

Talk about great What Ifs. A Simple Plan is brilliant.

Derailed, however, lost me when that what if turned in a brutal can’t-take-it-back nightmare. Couldn’t go any farther. (Although people tell me I should finish because of “the twist.”)

What if a killer called you in the middle of the night wanting revenge for something you didn’t do? And what if, because of that call, you started to wonder if you actually DID what he’s accusing you of — but you just can’t remember it…

Comment by Rob Gregory Browne

Rob. Nice!

Comment by Bill Cameron

What Ifs make you think in a different way. Sure, we all believe we’re morally upright and would never do (insert whatever you think you’d never do). But reality is never quite so simple. Eventually you realize that life’s not black and white and that in the right circumstances, you just might choose something that surprises you.

Great What If, Rob!!! Gonna write the book????

Comment by Tasha Alexander

BIll, the restraining order is in the mail.

Comment by Brett Battles

Oh, goodie! Does it come with actual restraints!?

Comment by Bill Cameron

I’m writing it as we speak, Tasha… Chasing a deadline.

Comment by Robert Gregory Browne

I wouldn’t take the money. Too paranoid.

Sleep with the girl? I dunno. Flip it as a hot guy? Maybe. If my husband was a total dick and whatnot.

What you witnessed a murder and the killer saw you see it?

Comment by Tracy

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