Everything starts with What If ...?
It's an easy game to play. I've tried it out with all age groups, using the exercise as a kind of ice-breaker at the start of a screenwriting course.
Try it: write out six simple sentences, all of them beginning with 'What if'.
It's often best if you don't try to think about it. Start writing your sentences - 'What if ...' - and then just keep going. See where it takes you.
What if the house was on fire?
What if I turned out to be next-in-line to the throne?
What if I fell down a rabbit hole? (Actually, that one's been done.)
What if my wife was a top-class assassin? (So has that.)
What if war broke out?
What if there was no winter?
What if trees could talk?
What if people couldn't?
I like this exercise. I often think of it as 'Hopes and Fears'. If you listen to six of these 'What If's that have been made up by a teenager, for example, you will get an insight into their mindset. Are they optimistic or pessimistic? Whimsical or negative?
Playing 'What If' reveals the things that scare you and the things that might give you hope. It also provides you with instant stories.
In many ways, every story begins with a 'What If?' Writers are constantly playing 'What If' in their minds, even when they don't realise they're doing it. It is one of the things that makes a storyteller: the ability to look at the world around you and for a part of your brain to be weighing up what you see or hear or encounter, analysing it, looking at it from different angles, asking 'What if ...?'
Stories have to come from somewhere. The fact is they are all around you.
Man is a storytelling animal. He thrives on stories.
Stories are what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Stories and opposable thumbs - that's about it. Man is the only creature that tells stories.
We've been doing it for thousands of years. Making sense of our world by means of stories.
There are the stories we tell about things which have happened. And then there are the stories which we make up.
The ones we make up invariably start with a 'What if'.
So the way to find a story is to ask 'What if' and then just keep going. Sooner or later, one of those questions, one of those 'What If's, will lodge in your mind. It will take root.
It might take years, but that one 'What If' could one day flower into the most fabulous story.
What if ...