Hi everyone! My name is Ms Geraldine and I am an English Teacher and Curriculum Specialist at Lil’ but Mighty. Having grown up reading lots of books and writing many of my own (sometimes very silly) stories, I hope to spread that same passion to my students. Let’s now take a look at how we can write better stories by making use of “What If?”
In my “Write for Fun” blogpost series, I discuss some writing exercises that can help get your writing juices flowing. One such exercise is pondering the “What if?” question, two magic words that I am sure most of us grew up thinking about. What if animals could talk? What if human beings could actually develop superpowers? What if there were no examinations in school? Believe it or not, I too definitely asked myself that last question when growing up — not every teacher is a fan of tests!
Whatever it is you are wondering about, this magic “What If” question gives you room to explore creative situations that wouldn’t usually happen in our everyday lives. By writing about these exciting “What if” scenarios, we make our stories much more novel and engaging. After all, who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in a world filled with a superheroes, or a world with intelligent, talking animals?
If it isn’t already obvious, the “What If” question has helped writers and filmmakers birth an endless variety of new and exciting stories. Today, I want to give you an example of how the “What If” question helped renowned author Roald Dahl write one of his best-selling children stories, Matilda.
The book Matilda revolves around a young girl, Matilda Wormwood, a gifted child who learns to speak fluently by the time she is one years old. She eventually also manages to read all the children’s books in her local library by the time she is four. Due to how much she reads, she ends up being extremely sensible, mature, and considerate despite her young age. Now, I think if Matilda ended up being a child to any parent in our world, they would likely be delighted by her genius and kind personality.
Yet Roald Dahl goes against all our expectations and asks these questions instead: What if clever Matilda was ignored, hated, and looked down on by her parents? What if her parents found her intelligence a nuisance and instead, favoured her nasty and foolish brother Mikey Wormwood?
For this is what happens in the book. Matilda gets so frustrated at how her family members refuse to acknowledge her strong reading abilities that she ends up entertaining herself by pulling some cheeky pranks on them… which—if you are interested in finding out what these pranks are—I will leave you to read about yourself 🙂
Matilda being disliked by her parents is not the only surprise Roald Dahl entertains us with. To make Matilda’s story even more compelling, Roald Dahl likely asked himself these next questions too: What if there was something more than just intelligence to Matilda’s abilities? What if her high IQ translates to other unique abilities that involve the brain?
In the book, Matilda does go on to unlock some of these unique and unexpected mind-related abilities. If you are curious to find out what Matilda ends up learning to do, I again recommend that you find out yourself by reading through Matilda’s entire journey 🙂 And so — thanks to Roald Dahl likely thinking about the magic “What If” question — the intelligent and kind girl that all of us end up rooting for achieves empowering growth and a satisfyingly happy ending.
Now that you have a clearer idea about how authors use the “What If?” question to come up with a rich and exciting premise for their stories, are you ready to try it out for yourself? Let’s carry out a short brainstorming exercise to see if we can come up with a novel and engaging premise to an otherwise ordinary story!
Firstly, I want you to consider the following ordinary set-up to a story: You, the protagonist, have a younger sister whom you are extremely close to. Both of your parents work long hours and sometimes stay overnight at the office, so you rarely see them. You are thus tasked with taking care of your younger sister most of the time. Now, based on this premise, we can see that there are a few story elements we can ask the “what if” question about: you, your younger sister, and your parents. Take a few seconds to consider these characters and see if you can come up with exciting “what if” questions about them!
Okay. I am sure that some of you are brimming with “what if” questions about yourself, your younger sister, and your parents. I am going to share some of my “what if” questions now, but go ahead and leave your own “what if” questions in the comments! For me, as someone who really enjoys the sci-fi/superhero genre, I will probably ask:
- What if my sister was not my biological sister but a younger clone of myself? What if neither of us knew this truth about each other?
- What if my sister and I were telepathically linked, which was why we were so close?
- What if my parents were spies or assassins, which explains their long working hours?
- What if my parents disappeared for so many weeks that my sister and I decided we had to investigate their absence?
Now, although all these questions offer very rich premises, I will probably not use ALL of them to avoid over-complication of the story. I will likely choose ONE of them and develop a storyline focused specifically on addressing that “what if” question. For those of you who are thinking of using similar “what if” brainstorming exercises to generate creative writing ideas, remember not to choose too many “what if” scenarios to cover in a single story because it will likely make your story too complicated and confusing. The key is to stay focused and not overwhelm yourself with too many juicy details!
Lastly, do be careful to avoid overly unrealistic and fantastical premises in your examinations in school. A best-selling author who wants to write about a telepathic sister in their own book has the luxury of time to develop the rich premise, often taking years to write and edit their story. Unfortunately, you only have less than an hour for your story writing in the examinations. So, as much as you may enjoy the “what if” question, remember to stick to realistic storylines in your examinations!
So there you have it! I hope you can see now how pondering the “What If” question can lead to many delightful and creative ideas in our stories. So what are you waiting for? Why not open your notebook and start writing about your dream world where examinations don’t exist today?