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-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.
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?
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