Ernest Hemingway:

As Ernest Hemingway once said...
'All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.'

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

what if? and my big duh moment

So I'm not quite done with Stephen King's On Writing yet but while reading it last night I stumbled into an 'a-ha' moment. According to Stephen King, stories should start out as 'what if' situations.

Duh, right? Seems easy. Not sure how this idea has escaped me all these years, but somehow it has. Mostly my stories are based on my fantasies (I daydream way too much) that I change around enough so as to not resemble my life in any way. Lots of times I work the whole thing out in my head before I even write one word. I see now how this isn't the best way, not even close.

One of his 'what if' examples:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? This is the 'what if' for 'Salem's Lot, of course.

'What if' is how he starts a story. He builds from there. In fact, he's very against plotting, something I've convinced myself is necessary for the past few drafts. I'm reconsidering. Because I think plotting (or detailed outlining) is why my current work is just about finished in 50K words, about 25K short of my initial goal. Because I stick to the plot instead of letting the story emerge.

Like I said, duh.

The plot to this novel is already clear. It just needs some serious padding. It's interesting - when I've disregarded the outline a little bit and made it up as I went along it flowed much better and seems more coherent. Thankfully it fits the 'what if' test - What if a young man finds out his dad isn't dead after being told all his life that he was? The hows and whys and whos are all variable. That is to say they can be changed up and the 'what if' still exists. I mean seriously - a light bulb turned on in my head. This makes so much sense. Leave it to Stephen King to say in so few words something that completely changes my life.

I've tried to apply the 'what if' test to my other novels, and not-so-shockingly, it doesn't work. What if a woman's husband dies, and she falls in love with another man, but can't deal with it, and becomes an alcoholic, and gets involved with her husband's best friend, and well, you get the point. The main 'what if' - woman's husband dies - isn't strong enough.

And how about this one? What if a woman's boyfriend goes out of town, and she falls in love with a musician, but doesn't do anything except be his friend, and then he calls to say he has cancer, and dies, and well, again, you get the point. What if a woman falls in love with another man isn't strong enough. Not even close! I'm laughing right now. It's the oldest plot line in history, right?

I think a standard part of my new process is going to be starting with 'what if' and working from there. It will be the very first thing on my new 'facts' page. I'm going to wing it from now on and make notes on major plot points and factual items as I go along (so I don't forget and have to hunt through the manuscript for information).

Do any of you start with a 'what if'? Honestly, how did I miss this?

Thank you, Stephen King. All of this just reaffirms that you are my hero.


Jo Michaels said...

Ahhhhh the glorious book On Writing. I read it just this year. Picked it up at his book signing event in Savannah. Changed my writing life. My first what if question came with the budding of Yassa. I asked, "What if Genghis Khan's best friend was in love with Borte?" And my book was born. With The Abigale Chronicles, it was, "What if a book could actually pull you into its pages and let you experience the world there?" With Mystic, "What if we could abolish the evil hatred that people feel toward one another?" and all of those questions were born of SK's book. :) Funny how a simple book can change the way you look at things, huh? The pen will always be mightier than the sword :) WRITE ON!

S.P. Bowers said...

What if is a good place to start. That's the nice thing about On Writing. When he's not using it as a memoir his writing advice is simple, and to the point, easily understood. I'm off to play the what if game with my own manuscript.