Weekend Workout: The Fabulous What If?

I know, I know . . . I’ve mentioned my timed “what if” exercise before, but I’m too lazy to go back and see what I said about it. I bring this one back to you this weekend simply because I used it this morning while writing and found it useful.

There is something simple and wonderful about a good “what if” exercise. I always seem to find what I need from it. I use it with kids and adults and probably more so than any other “what do I do now” exercise when I’m stuck writing or editing.

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There are a few ways I use my “what if.” Sometimes I already have an idea and just set the timer (10 to 15 minutes), and start with the line “What if … ,” writing spontaneously to work out the idea. Other times I make a list and write as many “what if” scenarios as possible, or I keep listing them until one suddenly pops out as “the answer.”

For example, I used this latter technique a few days ago when working with one of my young writers. She had to create a short story starting with the line “I looked out the classroom window and the playground was empty.”

“Cool,” I said, “let’s make a ‘what if’ list!”

She started writing her list:

-What if it was summertime?
-What if there had been a flu epidemic?
-What if it was the janitor looking out the window?
-What if school had been closed down for some reason?
-What if the school was about to be demolished?

We both looked at each other when she wrote that last one.

“I like it,” I said. “So do I,” said she.

“Okay, what else? Why is the narrator standing there? Start another ‘what if’ list.”

-What if the narrator was going to sabotage the demolition?
-What if he was a teacher who wanted to see it one last time?
-What if he used to go to that elementary school?
-What if he was the one demolishing the school and it was his old school?

Yeah! We knew she had it with that last one. What a great little vignette she could now write about a man who comes to revisit his past just before demolishing it.

She could have done a third “what if” with that last one. What if someone comes in and catches him crying? What if he refuses to cry? What if he remembers a painful moment in elementary school? What if that were the moment he shut himself off to love? And so on.

This is such a helpful brainstorming technique you can turn to, with no pressure, when you’re stuck (or not!). You can start brainstorming a story idea with a “what if” as in the example above, or you can use it to explore one particular idea in the middle of your story.

Today I needed Brigitta to have an encounter with something new and awesome and frightening. It dawned on my right away that she would meet the Eternal Dragon. But what would it do when it met her?

“What if she meets the Eternal Dragon and It . . .”

REMEMBER if you do the list to actually WRITE IT BY HAND and write the words “what if” each time to keep your thoughts moving. GREAT exercise for teachers for creative writing assignments.

If a 12-year-old can do this exercise successfully, so can you.

Have a great weekend.


  1. 4amWriter
    Dec 12, 2012

    Love it. I need something like this to help my younger writers with the “I don’t know what to write next” syndrome.

  2. Danika Dinsmore
    Dec 13, 2012

    I think it’s a great exercise for younger students. I’ve used it with my students on numerous occasions.

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