Welcome back Mysteristas friend DP Lyle with a very important question.
Every author has been asked: Where do you get your ideas? The short answer is: Everywhere. Something you see or read germinates an idea and a story unfolds. Sometimes the story comes together quickly, but most often weeks of building mental scenes and snippets of dialog, setting, and action must be waded through before pen meets paper.
An overheard conversation might be the spark. Or a couple talking/arguing/laughing at a nearby restaurant table. Maybe an odd character strolling down the street. Perhaps an idea simply pops into your head from wherever those thoughts arise.
Okay, so you have an idea. Now what? An idea isn’t a story. Ideas are a dime a dozen. They are literally everywhere. The key is to find an idea that can stand up through a 100,000 word manuscript. No small trick.
To do this, the original idea must be refined and fleshed out. An idea can become a scene, but to be a full-length novel it must evolve and expand. It must become a premise, or what many call “The Central Story Question.” It’s what the story is really about.
To become a premise, the original idea must ultimately lead to the question: What if?
What if this happened? What if that person did this? What if that dude in the shabby clothes was actually a rogue undercover agent with a deadly agenda? What if the restaurant couple was planning a murder? What if that briefcase contained state secrets? Or an explosive device? Or a deadly virus?
From those two words–What if?–stories arise.
The power of your story’s What If? can’t be overestimated. If it is done correctly and not lost in the writing. A good What if? states the main character, the situation, the stakes, and, most importantly, the central story question.
It is the answering of this question that is the story.
Okay, so our restaurant couple is planning a murder. Who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, why? It’s always the why that makes a great story. Is it to get out of a messy marriage and save all that alimony money, or to cash in that million-dollar insurance policy, or to cover an embezzlement from a company they work for, or to seek revenge for some act? Even though the original idea was a couple planning a murder, each of these scenarios generates a different story. Each will lead your sleuth, who must solve the murder, into a different world.
What if a forensic evidence and criminal behavior expert must track down a seemingly average, very religious couple who murdered the killer of their only child, dumped their entire lives, and disappeared?
This is the What If? for my latest Dub Walker thriller, RUN TO GROUND. See how it introduces the protagonist and states the major story question? Will Dub be able to find the couple and what will happen if he does?
The What If? should be stated in about 25 words or less. The one above is a little long but it works. Because the What If? is brief, it’s often called the elevator pitch or the agent pitch. It communicates your story in the most efficient terms. We’ve all heard writers respond when asked what their story is about by saying things like, “Well, there’s this guy who lives on an island. And he hates the water. And a big shark is killing people and this is threatening to shut down the town’s beaches on a holiday weekend. And then there’s this other guy who is a shark expert and he has a really cool boat. Oh, I forgot, the first guy is the chief of police.” Yawn.
What if a hydrophobic, island-community police chief must go out on the water to kill a predatory shark to save the town’s summer economy and to prove his own self worth?
What if an FBI trainee must exchange personal information with a sadistic serial killer in order to track another serial killer and save a Senator’s daughter?
What if the youngest son of a mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new godfather, losing his own soul in the process?
These are of course Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, and The Godfather, respectively. See how these What If?s reveal the protagonist and cleanly state the story premise? Read these books or watch the movies and you will see that each scene moves toward answering the story’s What If? Each of your scenes should, too. If not, consider cutting, or at least reworking, those that don’t.
Many authors consume weeks creating the What If? for their story. Constantly refining it, making it more on point. You should, too. It’s that important. It concisely states the Central Story Question.
Here’s a tip: When your What If? is completed to your satisfaction, print it out and tape it to your computer or the front of your writing pad so you will see it every time you sit down to write. Before writing each scene, read your What If? and ask yourself, “Does this scene help answer the Central Story Question?” If you do this, you will never lose sight of what your story is about. Particularly in the dreaded middle, where so many stories get lost in the jumble of character and backstory and cool dialog all the other stuff that goes into a manuscript. The What If? keeps you focused and on track.