The “What If” List: A Method for Getting Unstuck
It’s inevitable that at some point in the writing process, we’re going to get stuck. Even for serious outliners, like me, there’s bound to be a point in the story where you’re just not sure what should happen next. I find that, for me, this usually occurs when my plot has taken a detour away from my outline and I’m trying to figure out how to get it back on track, or when I realize that something in the outline isn’t going to work after all and needs to be revamped before I can proceed.
Luckily, there are plenty of techniques for figuring out where to go with a misbehaving plot. Just a quick sampling of some techniques I’ve used in the past (with varying degrees of success):
– Writing down the problem before bed and hoping I dream up a solution
– Treadmill time + the novel’s playlist
– Staring out a window
– Acting out a potential scene as the protagonist
– Having a conversation with the protagonist and asking them what they want to do next
– Procrastinating on Pinterest
– Going for a walk
– Giving up and watching Firefly for the rest of the day
And on and on.
But one tactic that I’ve become pretty fond of and seems to be met with success almost every time I try it is the “What If” list.
– a good pen and a piece of paper
(No, really – step away from the computer screen. Writing by hand unlocks all sorts of sticky things from your brain.)
First, figure out where you got stuck. Backtrack to the most recent chapter you were happy with and take stock of where your characters are, what dilemma they’re facing, what their current goal is, and where the story is heading (or, where you hope it’s heading).
Then make a list of all the things that could happen next – from expected to obscure to entirely ridiculous.
What if Sally confessed her love for Joe right now?
What if Sally slapped him?
What if Sally confessed a deep dark secret from her childhood?
What if the villain planted a bomb in her apartment and it exploded?
What if a flock of seagulls flew in through the window?
What if the news announced an alien invasion?
What if Sally’s mother called to say she’s dying?
What if her mother called to say she’s being held hostage in a bank and Joe is the only one capable of saving her?
And on and on. Set yourself a goal—say, you won’t stop listing until you’ve hit at least 30 potential ideas. Then be random. Be absurd. Be dark. Be cruel. Be funny.
Need an extra push? Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your characters right now. What’s the best thing? What minor characters could be brought in? What subplots could tie in here? What new goals or obstacles or dilemmas could you throw into the story?
Some things will be cliché. Some things will be stupid. Some things will obviously not belong in this book.
But then—out of nowhere—the most brilliant, perfect idea will strike. You’ll know it’s the Right Idea when you gasp and stop writing, even if you haven’t hit your goal number yet, because your head is suddenly filling up with all the potential that one perfect idea has to offer.
Applaud your genius and go with it.