What If: The Two Most Powerful Words in a Writer’s Repertoire

Almost all writers are familiar with the power of the “what if” question. Every novel, story, and article is inspired by those words, even when the question isn’t articulated. Many of us, however (myself included up until a few years ago) fail to tap the question’s full potential. Why? Simply because we don’t make a conscious effort to answer it.

Behold the Dawn (Amazon affiliate link)

My historical novel Behold the Dawn, a medieval epic set during the Third Crusade, was, in many ways, a changing point in my writing process—not in small part because it was in outlining this story that I learned to deliberately answer those magic words: What if?

How I Discovered the “What If?” Question

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (affiliate link)

I’m an intensive outliner, and I begin all my novels by sketching ideas longhand in a notebook.

On the first page of Behold’s notebook, I scribbled down a rough synopsis, a compilation of the hodge-podge ideas that had been germinating for several years.

At the top of the next page, I wrote What if…?, and, below it, I dashed off every single question that popped to mind.

When I started Behold, I had already written five novels and published one. But it wasn’t until I began preliminary sketches for this new story that I started developing the detailed process I now use, crystallizing what I had learned from outside sources and my own experiences, and solidifying the methods I knew worked for me.

One of those methods is taking a moment, at the very beginning of a story, to deliberately ask myself, “What if?”

Let the “What If?” Question Open the Floodgates of Your Creativity

Most of my ideas were completely off base, some of them laughably so, and most never made it into the book. But they opened the floodgates of my imagination and prompted me to think about my story in ways I hadn’t previously considered. By allowing myself to write down every idea, no matter how crazy, I came up with gems I would never have thought of otherwise—most notably the question, “What if an assassin was hired to kill himself?”

Underneath my list of questions (which I continued to add to throughout the notebook, whenever something new popped to mind), I tried another variation of the what-if question, by asking What is expected? I made a list of everything I could conceive the average reader of expecting to happen in my story—and then turned each expectation on its head to insert the unexpected wherever possible.

These simple exercises bore fruit beyond my wildest hopes. In the space of a handful of notebook pages, my story leapt from a simple tale of vengeance and redemption and love in the Middle Ages, to a complicated story of intrigue and suspense.

How to Put the “What If?” Question to Work in Your Story

Even if your preferred methods don’t include outlining (intensive or otherwise), make the what-if question a part of your routine for every story.

Write (or type) the question out to provide yourself a solid visual, and respond in whatever medium allows you the most mental flexibility. I write longhand because the sloppiness of my handwriting frees me from the need for perfection and allows me to throw any and all ideas onto the page.

But the speed and ease of typing or even verbalizing into a recorder might work best for you. The point is to actually record your thoughts, so that you can look back over them and gain new insight.

Once you’ve selected the few ideas that might work, start looking for tangents: “If such and such happened, then what if this also happened? Or what if this happened instead?”

The possibilities are endless—and infinitely rewarding!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What “what if?” question inspired your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

What If: The Two Most Powerful Words in a Writer’s Repertoire

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I sort of naturally do that when I write. I write down idea after idea and “what ifs.” My problem is to decide which “what if” to run with. For example, a character could A, B, or C. A, B, and C are perfectly good options, but which one? I guess I worry about not picking the right one. I think “that’s stupid (not good enought),” or “that’s too cliche, done before.” I probably didn’t explain this clearly enough, but do you happen to have any advice? Thanks a bunch! You’re site has been a source of excellent help.

  2. Listen to your gut. Whichever idea excites you the most is undoubtedly the one you should go with.

  3. I read about this idea a while back, and one thing us for sure. When I sat to write next time, the whole story suddenly changed. Bringing too many new ideas and unlocking too many new doors, it is by far my favorite exercise. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ideas are the fuel to our craft. Once we can tap into their power, the world opens up around us.

  4. thomas h cullen says

    In recent time, I’ve put together people spidergrams.. Every person is everything, but day to day people don’t vocalise this reality, instead just treating each other as just facets of life.

    The cadet, who attended Jhang Cadet College in the Middle East, some years ago.. I bubbled his name, and some of his facets include Studio 54 (the famous nightclub), and Cory’s death, in “Flowers in the Attic”.

    Heather O’Rourke, the Poltergeist actress, who died just age 13.. She’s also my pairing, on the pairings list, but for her bubble I gave her “Cherry Blossoms”, and “Everyday, of a person’s life not getting its own Wikipedia or encyclopaedia page, and “The EU Referendum, set to be put to the British people in 2017”.

    Essa Jee.. I gave her “Pausing a DVD”, and “Michael Douglas’ marriage, to Catherine Zeta Jones”.

    The PNP solider.. I gave him “School trip”, and “Writing a diary”, and “Rocky, and Tommy Gunn at the end of Rocky V”.

    The NYOS girl.. I gave her “Superbowl”, and “A “Quora Digest” question, or a feminist-related topic article, on “the Mary Sue”, on the very day of some substantial act of revolution around the world”.

    That was my “What If” question.. What if every person around the world was referenced as everything? Because it’s once people start to behave like this, the global status quo gets instantly demolished!

  5. I never thought of that. That sounds interesting.

  6. Yes! It’s awesome to ask yourself questions. You have answers that you never knew you knew!

  7. After 100+ pages, I recently started outlining, I mean brainstorming, and find myself constantly asking *two* questions: first, Why? then What if? It seems I’m constantly finding things that either don’t make sense or look/sound a bit boring. I’ll have “Person A goes to the city with this guy.” Why? What if… this instead? or, “Person A is person B’s child, but what if …?” or “so, what if…?” I’m coming up with options that help make the story make so much more sense and exciting. I am using the standard numbers and letters outlining from school. The sub-numbers/letters keep related ideas together and make them stand out, rather than their getting lost in a paragraph. — So glad to have found your website. <3 Future successful author, Kathy

  8. Just wanted to say, at first reading this article, I felt so much tension! I thought a What If? question didn’t apply to my story and therefore it was fine that I didn’t have one. I realized after a moment of thinking that this question created tension because it pointed out something – that I didn’t have clarity on the dramatic center of my story! Thank you for forcing me to face the gap – I now have a What If? question that has cleared up a lot of character motivation questions I’ve been wrestling with for SO long. Very grateful!!


  1. […] at least a full page of “what if” questions. What if this happened or that happened? What if the protagonist was kidnapped by aliens? What […]

  2. […] I agree! Reading about the “What If” question and how to use it made it sound not only essential, but easy! Ask yourself “What If This […]

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