At my work, there are two questions that I ask every day. What if? and Then what? I drive my co-workers crazy, but if they can get past their burning desire to see me attempt to swim across Lake Monona carrying 500 pounds of chain, we end up creating a disaster response plan that makes sense and will keep the company in business until a full recovery is possible.
It really doesn’t matter what crisis scenario they throw at me, my response is the same, “Then what?” “Okay, but what if this happens? Then what?” Action and response, action and response, rinse and repeat. Does this sound familiar to you writers? It should. This simple formula can be a life saver when plotting out your story and it is a near sure-fire cure for writer’s block.
New story/Opening scene: Imagine you have this really great character that you have spent hours working up back story, traits, flaws, abilities, likes and dislikes. Then what? A good story needs conflict, right? So, throw your character in to the frying pan. You can use their biggest fear, greatest dislike, natural disaster, man-made disaster, etc. Drop them into the setting and throw the book at them. Then what?
Plot: How do they respond to the crisis that you threw them into? Do they take direct action, try to talk their way out, ask a stranger for help, use a super power, etc. What is the result of their action? Whatever they did, it fails or, even better, the situation gets worse. Now what? They try something else that only makes their situation more dire. Then what? Rinse and repeat until the characters can’t possible survive, then write the story’s climax.
Story board: For those of you who don’t write by the seat of your pants, this technique works very well when story boarding. We’ve already seen it used for plotting, but it also works well when looking at character arcs. Once you have determined where your character will start and you have an idea as to where you see them ending up, go back to the beginning and start asking, how does a scene affect the character? How do they change? Maybe they don’t at first, so ask, then what? After the next scene what has changed? Will the change affect the next scene? How? Then what? Always aim for your final outcome but take small steps, building a little at a time. Eventually, those little changes will add up until the character reaches the point where they either need to make a major change to survive, or revert back to their beginning stage never to recover.
The bottom line is this, these two little questions should be in every writers toolkit. They are versatile and very useful. So, have you consciously used this technique?