Most writers I know adore a good what-if. That simple question is akin to creative crack, a cheap addiction with an extremely generous dealer.
After all, any topic is fodder for the what-if treatment. It’s the gift that, well, you know . . .
What if the Brits had won the American war for independence? What would our world look like today?
One particularly odd image in my answer to the above questions is imagining the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico singing God Save the Queen. It evokes a wonderful commercial I saw decades ago where the stereotypic Native American – one with long gray braids and a craggy face—eats a piece of pizza with a big smile and says, “Ah. Just like my mother used to make.”
You can bet those writers were playing with what-ifs.
What if Poirot grew tired of puzzles and opened a men’s clothing store?
Can’t you just see him measuring someone’s in seam? Of course, Poirot’s brilliant little gray cells would probably commit suicide from lack of stimulation.
What if Nancy Drew decided to drop out of high school and hitchhike through South America? What if she’d started toking reefer in junior high? What if her mother was in the picture?
I don’t know if Nancy would’ve butted into other people’s business or worked to solve crimes if her social horizons were broader, or if she’d broken a few laws herself. And, I doubt a mother would have let her do some of the things her father permitted simply because he couldn’t supervise his daughter all the time.
What if Sherlock had been well-adjusted? What if Watson was his true intellectual and observational equal?
What if Jane Eyre had had loving parents? What if Rochester had been a pleasant, happy fellow?
The mind just boggles, doesn’t it?
I know readers play with what-ifs all the time too.
My children derive quite a bit of their literary pleasure from extrapolation. My-daughter-the-Harry-Potter devotee has applied her innate logic to several questions about the characters as adults. She has a sensible theory about whom Cho would marry and why. She’s got a good idea about what Teddy (Tonks’ and Prof. Lupin’s son) would be like today. She’s certain Draco would still be a prick.
My other daughter has spoken with me about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and has wondered aloud about what would’ve happened if Lizzie had been attracted to Darcy from the beginning.
“I can tell you one thing,” my daughter said to me yesterday. “It’d be a pretty short book.”
Every time I write a scene, I make dozens of decisions that feel monumental in the moment. When I commit something to paper –or computer screen –it seems like the only possible option. The best one ever. When I’m in that frame of mind, I bristle—a little—to think other people might rewrite my endings or create their own narratives around my characters’ actions and motivations.
But when I’m in a what-if mood, writing is so much more fun. I let myself play and see where alternate decisions take me. And I love that people might invest so much emotional/mental attention to my work that they’d think about other possibilities.
Today, after the long weekend, I think it’s time to get our own little gray cells working. So, let’s stretch our creative muscles with this exercise:
Ask a what-if about any literary character, story or book
and then – if you’re willing – give us an answer.
One of the enjoyable and unanticipated results of being the sole ’Rati that posts on a weekly schedule is that I now get all of the guest bloggers. The next two weeks are going to provide me with a much appreciated mini-vacation. And, dear readers, you’ll have the treat of two excellent writers. Talk about a win-win.
Julie Kramer on Monday, July 13
Rhys Bowen on Monday, July 20