Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Two Most Powerful Words


For a character driven writer—and reader—like me, a story idea begins with a character. I think about this character. I figure out where he or she lives, how the character dresses, what his or her daily life is like, what motivates this person, and consider his or her physical description.

None of that, however, gives me a story. A storyline involves plot, climax, and resolution. It involves conflict: something that the character needs or wants and the obstacles that stand in the way of him getting it.

This is where the two most powerful words come into play. What? You’ve never heard of these words? I think you have.

Those two words are, “What if?”

Take Amelia, she is an impulsive girl born into a wealthy family. Her curly hair is blonde and her eyes blue. At the age of 13, she lives in Pennsylvania where her father is an important business man. Tea parties and private schooling fill her days. Since she lives in the mid-1800’s, she wears fine dresses made of silk and fashionable boots with buttons. She has a collection of porcelain dolls, but there is one that is very special to her.

She could be any well-bred girl living in the 1800’s—but she’s not. Amelia has a story all her own.

What if…

Amelia experiences a tragedy unlike she’s ever known?

What if…

Her parents die of the influenza and Amelia is sent to live with her spinster aunt at the Ridgemont estate in Massachusetts?

What if…

Amelia’s impulsive nature is at odds with her Aunt Martha’s desire to bring her up properly?

What if…

A lonely Amelia befriends Ralph, the Negro stable hand working at the Ridgemont estate? And…

What if…

Aunt Martha disapproves?

What if…

Amelia’s father told her stories of what Aunt Martha was like as a girl and they are very different from the stern, bitter aunt who is now her guardian?

What if…

Amelia decides she must uncover the secret that caused the change in Aunt Martha? And…

What if…

She is willing to risk her aunt’s wrath to find out?

Two little words, yet they open up a world of possibilities. Use them wisely. Use them often.


This post originally appeared at the Utah Children's Writers blog on January 9, 2011.

10 comments:

Turning the Clock Back said...

what a great way to inspire creativity in writing. If you are stuck, ask yourself...what if? and see what happens! Thanks for the post!

Margay said...

I get into a lot of trouble with those two words!

Admin said...

Ahhh...the what if question. Very very good thinking!

Kate Dolan said...

You are right - those words are the inspirations that get me started on stories. But it's funny how while I have "what if?" moments all the time at random, I forget to use that question deliberately when I need to devise a specific story. Thanks for the timely reminder!!

avomnia said...

Terrific post, Cheryl! It is so easy for those two perilously important words to get covered with the dust and debris all the other mechanics of writing kick up. Easy to get involved in the descriptions or introducing a new character, a sub-plot, etc. But even then, those two small words are always tucked right behind each and every one.

Cheryl said...

So glad you all liked this post. Feel free to share your what if moments.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

That's the way I usually get started with a new book, asking "What if?" Great post.

Rebecca Camarena said...

Why do I always forget those two word, "What if?"

Suzie Quint said...

I love playing "what if?" Best game ev-ver!

Cheryl said...

Thanks for stopping by everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.