What If?

Ask yourself “What If?” to create an interesting story. Then ask yourself, “So what?”

Before you start writing, you need to outline your story to make sure you have an interesting story to tell in the first place. You can do that by asking “What if?”

Asking “What if?” helps you identify an interesting story. What if a dictator developed a weapon capable of killing entire planets? That’s “Star Wars.”

What if a group of Jewish commandos got loose in Nazi-occupied France? That’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

What if a man discovered that he was really part of a reality TV show? That’s “The Truman Show.”

Asking “What if?” can help you identify an interesting story idea, but now you have to take it one step further and ask “So what?” Specifically, you have to ask yourself how does your “what if” question alter your hero’s life in a dramatic way that he or she cannot ignore?

In “Star Wars” the “So what?” question is that the stormtroopers wiped out his aunt and uncle, leaving him no reason to stay any more.

In “Inglorious Basterds,” the “So what?” question is that the Basterds’ goal is to kill as many Nazis as possible in revenge, and killing Hitler would be the ultimate victory.

In “The Truman Show,” the “So what?” question is that the studio is keeping Truman from finding the woman he truly loves.

Finally, ask yourself, “What could go horribly wrong? If the hero doesn’t succeed, what’s the worse that could happen? In “Star Wars,” Luke would see all his friends die and the rebel alliance would be wiped out.

In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Nazis would survive and prolong the war.

In “The Truman Show,” Truman could stay trapped in his artificial world forever and never find the woman he loves.

Here’s the basic formula:

“What if?” — Helps you define an interesting story that will grab our attention.

“So what?” — How does your story affect your hero? If you have a great story but it doesn’t affect your hero in the least, it’s no good. Ideally, the “So what?” question should irreversibly affect the hero’s current life so he or she can’t go back to it.

“What could go horribly wrong?” — This is what’s at stake for your hero. The bigger the stakes, the more important the outcome will be to your hero and your audience.

By answering three questions, you can outline the structure of your story. Now you’ll just need to worry about filling in the details, but without a structure to follow, your story risks going off in all the wrong directions, so create a structure that you like by asking three questions and you’ll be on our way.

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