Plot & Structure Exercise 8.1: the What-If game

In chapter three of his plot book, Mr Bell suggests ways for coming up with hundreds of ideas. Ok, we wonder, why? Remember how one tip to writing subsequent scenes was to imagine multiple scenarios? We tend to write A, B, C, D . . . but Mr Bell suggested, in a sense, after D just list E, F, G. But only write the one that rocks. This way your story flows from awesome scene to awesome scene. Rather than from a starting place to the next logical step, usually a cliche.


This method of “bursting” multiple avenues of continuation banks on our ability to imagine multiple scenarios. Already we are blessed with a notion of “what ought to be.” We simply take this skill and apply it to plot ideas, asking, “What ought to be my next idea.”


An original idea can be enough to get you through an entire book. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale. Even when the beginning didn’t grab me and the middle didn’t keep me, I never would have reached the awesome ending, had I not been seismically invested in the central idea of the book: “What if women are once again ground down to their irreducible function, making babies.” That idea alone made the book a must read.


I don’t know about you, but I can come up with ideas really fast. The problem is I usually go with the first idea that comes to mind. Mr Bell suggests I slow down, continue thinking of ideas, instead of swinging from one low hanging branch to the next. (Which usually produces a lot of writing, but not the kind I like.)


So we practice. Once a week I will spend one hour exercising idea generation. Luckily my favorite number is 8. So we will do this in parts.


. . .


The What-If Game. Look at commercials, read newspapers, and listen to conversations. Anywhere, anytime, and with anything. For an hour, ask yourself “what if?”



What if Gone With the Wind had a happy ending?

What if someone wrote a story like Sashenka but with a revolutionary spy in Argentina?

What if my first novel had been a success, where readers shared it with other readers?

What if Taipei had had a happy ending, where the protagonist didn’t end up all high on mushrooms, but created something beautiful?

What if Dracula had never been popular when it first came out?

What if my wife liked Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

What if I gave myself a second chance to finish reading Pale Fire?

What if I got published in the next issue of Mandorla?

What if the ending of Handmaid’s Tale had been more clear, less ambiguous?

What if Little Women had four boy neighbors, instead of just Laurie?

What if we knew the girl’s wish in Murakami’s “Birthday Girl” story?

What if I met Cartarescu?

What if I learn how to read Romanian by reading this Panait Istrati book a homelessman sold to me?

What if Mihai Viteazu hadn’t gone to Moldova and stayed in Transylvania to build his empire?

What if the company I work for is the next great company?

What if the book that talks about systems wasn’t written as a system?

What if I translated the book about playing through writing that I bought in BA?

What if I became the Federico Manuel of Houston?

What if Zama had a good ending where he was sent home?

What if Cortázar had an extra story for his collection, would the publishers run it, or keep his book slim?

What if Cortázar hadn’t been accepted by Borges, would latin letters be similar, the same, or wildly different?

What if I had finished translating the Levrero novel?

What if I reread La vida breve?

What if I met Abel Posse?

What if Luisa Valenzuela wrote a simple novel?


Movies I saw this year

What if Fitzcarraldo had a shorter first act?

What if Forrest Gump had been about a new yorker?

What if the reason the birds attacked everyone in the Hitchcock film was because of the water!?

What if Contagion were remade?

What if 12 Years of Slave were remade by rednecks, where the whites are enslaved and one was wrongly accused?

What if no one had believe Jean Valjean when he came out at the court house?

What if Plataforma were actually good?

What if crime in Mexico was based on something other than drugs?

What if La Belle Noiseuse were half as long?

What if Parasite had been filmed in Toyko?

What if Lucia y el sexo were remade, but set in caveman times?

What if la Vita E bella were filmed by Hollywood?

What if Belle du Jour were made into a novel?

What if Marriage Story has aspired to inspire viewers that marriage with the right person is possible rather than pander to the general consensus that marriage doesn’t work?

What if Kingdom of Heaven had been filmed by a new director?

What if Idiocracy were just around the corner?

What if Ivan’s Childhood had been set in a future war?



Places I have lived

What if Romania had better marketing?

What if the capital had been Iasi?

What if Romania hadn’t flipflopped in WW2?

What if Romanians took private care of the streets and parks?

What if we lived here forever?

What if I had made it in NY?

What if I had never left?

What if I had never gone?

What if I had gotten the job at the university?

What if I had been a bad teacher?

What if I had lived in Manhattan?

What if I had had cleaner roommates my first year?

What if I had made more time to hang out with my friends?

What if I never learned anything in NY?

What if I had never gone to BA?

What if I didn’t have family there?

What if I had spent Christmas back in Houston that year?

What if I had written a novel that year in BA?

What if I had gotten the job at the newspaper?

What if I never moved back with my parents in 2014?

What if I had published more during that year of not paying rent?

What if I had been a better man?

What if Houston were a cooler city?

What if Houston had a hipper arts scene?

What if Houston became the most famous city in Texas around the world for its art?

What if Houston is where I die?

What if I get a house on the same street as my parents?

What if Austin had been a bigger city?

What if Austin had less traffic?

What if I had stayed in Austin?

What if SX had given me a job?

What if UTSA had been closer to downtown?

What if I had something other than study and drink in my one year there?

What if it hadn’t rained every day like it did?

What if blah blah blah . . .



Posted in Miscellaneous and tagged , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.