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Every creative writer knows the sting – the disappointment that comes when a fantastic idea doesn’t become a compelling story.

This doesn’t mean your ideas are unworthy. The issue often lies in how you develop your ideas.

Imagine a different reality:

  • A world where every idea you generate evolves into refined versions.
  • A reality where you have unlocked the secret to breathing life into your story ideas.

This real world can be achieved by making a small shift in your approach. One of the most effective techniques for evolving story ideas is the ‘What if?’ method.

Introducing the “What If?” Method

The “What if?” method is a narrative strategy that can evolve your ideas from “Good” to “Better,” and ultimately to “Great.”

This strategy can transform the way you approach story development and be summarized into three stages:

Stage 1 (Good): Basic Idea Formation

• “Ooh, this could be good… What if?”

Stage 2 (Better): Refine and Complicate

• “Better yet… What if?”

Stage 3 (Great): Introduce an Antagonistic Force

• “Great, now… What if?”

Exploring the Stages

Now, let’s dive deeper into each stage to understand how you can apply them to your story ideas.

1/ Good: Basic Idea Formation

  • Begin with a simple premise.
  • A character in a potential conflict or an exciting scenario.
  • Good = Potential protagonist + a unique situation

2/ Better: Refine and Complicate

  • Pose a “What if?” question to your basic idea.
  • This encourages the evolution and expansion of your idea.
  • Better = Refined protagonist + more complicated situation

3/ Great: Introduce an Antagonistic Force

  • Add more specific details and introduce complications to your idea by introducing a potential antagonist or a significant obstacle.
  • This raises the stakes and drives your story forward.
  • Repeat the process until your idea reaches its full potential.
  • Great = Focused protagonist + complicated situation + one potential antagonistic force

The “What if?” method pushes your ideas further, transforming them into something truly unique and captivating.

Illustrating “What If?” With Popular Stories

To provide a clearer picture, let’s apply the “What if?” method to some well-known novels and movies:

Example #1: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • Good: A guy hunted treasures in his spare time?
  • Better: A history teacher hunted mythical artifacts to protect them?
  • Great: A professor of archeology discovered the Ark of the Covenant, and he had to prevent it from falling into the hands of Nazis?

Example #2: Transformers

  • Good: Someone bought a car that could transform?
  • Better: A teenager bought a car that could transform, and it was an alien?
  • Great: A geeky high school boy bought a car which turned out to be a peaceful alien that could transform, and the teenager held the key to stop the evil aliens?

Example #3: Gone Girl

  • Good: Someone came home to a possible murder scene in their living room
  • Better: A husband came home to a possible murder scene in his home and his wife’s missing?
  • Great: A cheating husband came home to a possible murder scene in his home, his wife’s missing, and he has to prove his innocence?

Example #4: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

  • Good: A kid discovered he had magical powers?
  • Better: A boy discovered he was a wizard, and he was summoned to attend a special school for wizards?
  • Great: An orphan boy discovered he was a wizard, attended a special school for wizards, and he had to defeat the same powerful wizard that killed his parents?

Example #5: The Hunger Games

  • Good: A person was forced to fight in a battle to the death?
  • Better: A girl volunteered herself to save her little sister from a death game?
  • Great: A teenage girl volunteered herself to save her little sister from a death game, and the death game was televised as entertainment by a tyrannical government?

Now that we’ve seen how this works in well-known novels and movies, it’s your turn.

Try to apply this method to one of your own story ideas. Here’s a prompt you can use with ChatGPT to get started:

ChatGPT Fiction Writing Prompt:

//copy text from prompt below//

Imagine you are a New York Times Bestselling Novelist renowned for transforming simple ideas into phenomenal successes.

Now let’s work on a [Insert your Genre] story.

I’ll start with my basic story idea: [Insert your What If? scenario, e.g. What if a new group of angels disagreed with God’s plan for humanity and they were cast out of heaven in 2023?].

Here are your instructions:

1. Treat the provided scenario as the Stage 1 Basic Idea.

2. From there, create three separate and increasingly complex story developments.

3. Present each development in the following format:

• Stage 1: The provided Basic Idea “What if?” (basic idea + situation)

• Stage 2: Refine and Complicate “Better yet… What if?” (refined idea + more complicated situation)

• Stage 3: Add an Antagonistic Force “Wait… Better yet… What if?” (focused story idea + complicated situation + one potential antagonistic force)

Take my idea and evolve it into three different, more complex, and captivating narratives.

//copy text from prompt above//

Taking “What If?” Beyond New Ideas

Apart from forming new ideas, the “What if?” method can also be a lens to improve existing stories and works in progress.

Try analyzing your current project, identify its base “What if?” and see how you can evolve it further.

If you find yourself stuck after your first few ideas, consider experimenting with your favorite novels or movies, and run a series of “What if?” scenarios against those stories.

It’s okay to use your favorite stories for innovation.

So I encourage you to stay open to letting other people’s stories inspire your ideas. But it’s your duty to take that idea and make it new, fresh, and different in your unique way.

You never know – your next best idea might come from someone else’s story.

And who knows, maybe someone else’s next special idea will come from one of your stories?

Wouldn’t that be great?

That’s it for this Saturday.

If you’re finding value in the Saturday Storyteller newsletter, consider sharing it with a fellow creative writer.

See ya next week!

— Dave