What If? and What Happens Next? Two secret weapons for aspiring writers

I’m a believer that we are all storytellers—many of us are good ones. We spin tales whenever we tell a joke, or recount the day’s events at the dinner table, or roll a D20, or recap the most recent episode of V to our buddies. I’m also a SF thriller novelist and, unlike some literary snobs I read about (and give the mental middle finger to), I believe we all have at least one great story inside us, taking up space, rattling at the cage bars, hungry to be let loose. That fictional story may very well be a good one, too.

You’re a SFF fan, which means you’re extremely imaginative. That’s good. Imagination is the key ingredient to being a tale-teller. If you’ve got a novel, short story or screenplay prowling inside your guts—but have never made the attempt to set it free—I, as Ambassador For All Writers Who Claim Ridiculous Ambassadorships For These Occasions, proclaim it’s high time you stopped listening to that fretful voice in your noggin (It won’t be any good . . . You don’t have time to write . . . It’s all been said before), plant your bootie in a chair, and get typing. You’re not getting any younger, ya know—and you’ll never learn to fly if you don’t flap those wings.

Still with me? Still jonesing to tell a tale? Killer diller. I want to help you. Now I’m a young writer, with just a few books under my belt. My books are not award-winning highbrow masterpieces. They’re high-tech and supernatural thrillers, designed to keep you gasping and guessing. If you’re cool with taking advice from a potboiler-writin’ pup, then we’re in business. Check the next ‘graph.

I’ve learned a lot about writing and myself, the deeper I dive into the fiction game. But there were two secret weapons I learned early on that still help me through the brainstorming, outlining and writing processes. They’re stupefyingly simple mantras, but I’ve found them to be of incalculable value: “What If?” and “What Happens Next?”

What If?
If you’ve got a book in your brain, you’re already living this mantra. But since your story’s not yet on paper, you’re only halfway there. It’s mission-critical that you fully embrace What If? because it helps see you through beyond The Big Idea, the initial hook of your story.

What If? is precisely what it sounds like: Asking What If?, and permitting yourself to get creative and answer the question. These are questions about your story, its characters, and the world in which they occupy. You give yourself permission to play, to let your imagination run wild by exploring your Big Idea.

If it feels like work, you’re doing it wrong—unbuckle that creative seatbelt and let your mind have a blast. Take notes while you do this; if you don’t, it’s nothing more than mental masturbation. Such stuff has a place, but not it’s when you’re trying to eke a book (or other story) out of your brain. Taking notes means you’re making a commitment. You’re not necessarily committed to those ideas, but you are committed to making your story a reality.

What If . . .

  • . . . a farmboy rose above his lowly circumstances, embraced his family’s secret past, and attained the skills to take down an intergalactic fascist government?

  • . . . a good cop is murdered by bad people, is resurrected as a cyborg to protect the public, but pursues revenge against his killers?

  • . . . a fussbudget spaceship officer protests when an alien-infested co-worker is brought aboard, and finds herself fighting for survival when the creature slays her crew?

  • . . . seven men are kidnapped by the government, discover that they’re human clones, and must hunt an anarchy-hungry psychopath—who is also the man they were cloned from? (That’s my book, 7th Son: Descent.)

You’re a clever person, so you already see where I’m going with this. Play. Tease your brain, build those Big Ideas, and use What If? to further build upon those them. The very best writers are great liars: they use convincing details and plausible mythologies to support their Big Ideas. Most of that hails directly from What If?

What Happens Next?
Once you’ve excavated enough Big Ideas (and supporting ideas) using What If?, it’s time to start writing your tale, or outlining it. That’s where What Happens Next? comes in.

Have you ever started writing a story, got about a quarter of the way in and then . . . uh oh . . . gave up because you had no clue where it was going? That goes away with What Happens Next?. You’re committed not only to your Big Idea, but to moving the story forward, to getting to the finish line. Because that’s what writers do.

Now I’m an outliner who uses What Happens Next? during that planning process, but you can be an “organic” writer and leverage it with equal success. It’s an elegant tactic. You come to the end of an outline beat (or written chapter) and ask yourself the dumbest question in the world—What happens next?

You ask this fully understanding that the only way to move ahead is to answer this dumb question.

What happens next, man? You’ve got a bunch of Big Ideas culled from your What If? riff sessions. You’ve got your characters, your mythology, your hook. What happens next?

What Happens Next when . . .

  • . . . that farmboy, who’s too afraid to leave his current locale, has everything he holds dear destroyed by those fascist soldiers?

  • . . . that robot-cop stops a routine holdup, but the perp he’s arresting is one of his murderers?

  • . . . that fussbudget officer must start ignoring procedure to combat the monster roaming her ship?

  • . . . the seven human clones discover that their villainous progenitor has left a trail of clues that might lead them to his location?

I could go on, but you’re five steps ahead of me now. What Happens Next? is the narrative carrot on the stick, the even-cooler reward for creating cool content so far. You’re moving your plot and characters forward, and increasing your commitment to your story. Nothing’s more satisfying.

If you’re keen to craft fiction, I hope you give these two techniques for a spin—and I hope you find value in them. Of course, there are a dozen-dozen other “secret weapons” for emerging writers. What are yours? Let’s give a helpful conversation going. Share your experiences in the comments.


J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

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