I am going to hand you the keys to the kingdom, the magical secret to an infinite supply of writing ideas – no matter what genre you write in (okay, if you’re aiming for autobiographies or non-fiction, you’re out of luck – but, as I’ve mentioned before, those people aren’t likely visiting this blog). Like all dramatic secrets, it’s exceedingly simple, and you’ll kick yourself if you haven’t already been exploiting it:
That’s it! So simple and yet so amazing! Those two little words are a crazy gold mine of inspiration! You can apply them across the fictional board, creating pages of story ideas that span from flash fiction up to novel-worthy lengths. After all, we know writers have a surfeit of imagination, so it takes very little effort on our part to start wondering things. Let me demonstrate.
What if a fairy tale was swapped to a science fiction setting? Disney pulled it off beautifully with Treasure Planet (such an under-appreciated film). I’ve done so myself: my short story “Glissando” is a retelling of the “The Nightingale.” Yeah, it takes WORK to transplant something that is so well-known into a different setting, but it you’re willing to take on the challenge, the reward is worth it.
What if you swap the protagonists and antagonists in a well-known story? Neil Gaiman did an amazing job in “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Again, it takes a deft hand to flip an established story in the mirror (no pun intended), but who doesn’t relish a challenge? Best of all, it gives you a chance to explore the background of the antagonist, to give them motives and sympathy – something overlooked in those fond fairy tales.
(Side note: fairy tales get a lot of mention here – sorry, not sorry)
What if the story didn’t end where the author left off? What if there was something left out? What if there wasn’t a “happily ever after” after all? You can take something bright and glittery and turn it dark if you have the mind. Personally, I despise “Snow White and Seven Dwarves” – I always have; Snow White is a complete idiot, and I didn’t feel she deserved a happy ending. So in my short story “Everapple” I took it away. In a similar fashion, I really felt there was an injustice done in “The Little Mermaid” – that scheming princess lied and there were no repercussions. How could Hans Christian Anderson let that stand?! In “Sea Foam and Fire” I fixed it. Yes, both of my short stories fall square in the dark fantasy category, but they came out of my asking, “What if…”
You can do the same thing!
Look at the stories that irk you and bother you, and start asking, “what if this..” Now, you can’t violate copyright (which is why fairy tales are a boon since they belong to the public domain), but you can still use them as a starting point. Those two little words will get your inspirational juices flowing, believe me. You can even mine multiple ideas from the same story, depending on how many questions you ask.
Using “what if” for broad questions works, too. I’ve done it for several of my novels, the questions just floating to the surface of my mind out of the blue (play the game often enough, and it’ll happen to you, too – inspiration’s fun that way). “What if there was a version of Neverland for adults?” Bam! – my novel Lethe started breathing. “What if the villain was the main character and you built sympathy in the reader from the start?” And Confessions of a Teenage Villain (title still pending – titles I’m never sure of until I’m well into the novel) came to life. “What if depression was a living, breathing character?” Suddenly, that vague idea I couldn’t figure out turned into Oubliette.
Those two words are a reader’s dream. Whenever you hit a brick wall, sit down and start asking, “What if…” and just write out the questions. Something will strike your writing brain in just the right way, and you’ll be zooming along in no time. You’ll be amazed at how many questions you can think of (and the kinds of questions you’ll come up with – believe me, I scare myself on a regular basis).
Two words – unlimited inspiration. Give it a try.