What if . . . ? A Key Question for Your Book

Guest Article By Dan Millman & Sierra Prasada

After he’d already written a string of bestsellers, suspense writer John Saul received a five-word note along with the manuscript returned by his agent: “There is no book here.” On rereading the manuscript, Saul agreed. He vowed never again to embark on a project until he could articulate the elements that sustain a dramatic narrative in one compelling sentence of no more than twenty-five words, a sentence he chose to begin with “What if . . . ?”

When you make time to distill your story down to a one-sentence summary or What If, you confirm that you know the story you want to tell and you direct your focus onto that story’s key elements.

A strong What If question will introduce your story’s:

  • Protagonist or central character
  • Antagonist, or opposing force
  • Essential conflict that pits the two against each other
  • Genre and setting

Even a short story will contain more elements than can be captured in one sentence, and a long-form narrative will encompass additional background, subplots, supporting characters, complications, and revelations. But all these elements grow upward and outward from the seed of your initial inspiration and the soil of your What If question.

The What If question lends itself most easily to story, whether fiction, memoir, or narrative nonfiction. It can also help define essays and nonfiction guidebooks by pointing toward the intended audience and indicating how the work will serve readers. We devised and fine-tuned a What If for our nonfiction book, The Creative Compass: What if we could demystify the writing process with five universal stages to help you reach your creative goals in writing and life?

If you find it challenging to come up with a compelling What If question, you may not yet have all the elements that make up a compelling story. Before you draft, revise your question as often as necessary until it captures the essence of the dream you want to share. If you’ve already completed one or more manuscript drafts, this question still has a role to play: the What If brings the story you set out to tell back into focus while giving it room to evolve.

Applying the proverbial wisdom “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand,” we encourage you to begin working with this tool by composing questions (of twenty-five words or less) for several of your favorite books. In doing so, you’ll develop your own abilities as a storyteller because you’re working directly on the most fundamental elements of story. First, here are some examples:

The Wizard of Oz: What if a tornado carried a young girl to a magical land threatened by a witch whom she must defeat in order to return home?

1984: What if love were declared a crime in a totalitarian future, forcing an ordinary man to become an outlaw in a daring quest for freedom?

The Lord of the Rings: What if a young hobbit and loyal fellowship pursued a hopeless quest to destroy the Ring of Power desperately sought by an all-seeing wizard?

Matilda: What if a brilliant five-year-old, aided by a trusted mentor, found a way to triumph over her cruel parents and tyrannical teacher?

The Book Thief: What if Death narrated the story of a German girl who discovered, through her love of books, how to save herself and a runaway Jew?

Iran Awakening: What if a fervently patriotic attorney realized she’d have to fight the revolution she’d championed if she hoped to save her life and her country?

As you read through the examples once more, take care to note each element conveyed by the What If: Who is the protagonist of each work? Who is the antagonist? Is it a person or a force? What is the primary source of conflict? Where is the story set? What do you know about the genre?

When you believe you’ve written a strong What If, you may want to share it with a couple of friends. Do they find it compelling? Is it a story they’d want to read? Ideally, you’ll choose those friends whom you believe would be likely to enjoy the story you want to tell.

Simple and compact, What If questions remind us that literature expresses our hunger for the coherence and meaning that life doesn’t necessarily provide. Moving between the real world and the dream, you may feel like Dorothy Gale when she murmurs, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” In a world of imagination, is it any wonder that a one-sentence question can wield as much power as a pair of ruby slippers?

Based on the book The Creative Compass. Copyright © by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada Millman. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com

Dan Millman is the author of 17 books read by millions of people in 29 languages. He teaches worldwide and lives in Northern California. His website is www.PeacefulWarrior.com.

Sierra Prasada, a freelance journalist and editor, is the author of Creative Lives. She lives in Washington, D.C. Her website is www.SierraPrasada.com.

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2 Responses to What if . . . ? A Key Question for Your Book

  1. I am going to play with this tool for my current novel in progress. What a help for that elevator speech, back cover blurb, and query letter synopsis. Thank you, great article!

    • You’re welcome, Jodine. Glad it was helpful. Thanks for your comment.

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