A writer walks into a doctor’s office.
“You gotta help me, doc. I keep hearing about everyone making money from self-publishing, and everywhere I go, someone’s trying to sell me their book.”
“I see,” the doctor says, nodding. “So what seems to be the problem?”
“Well, I figure if everyone’s writing a book, I should too, but I can’t actually finish it because I keep fiddling with the premise.”
“I see. Do you happen to start a lot of your sentences with, ‘What if?'”
The writer thinks about this for a second. “You, know, I do! I keep changing the premise around, trying to make it better, and no matter how much I change it, I’m never satisfied.”
The doctor smiles. “What you’re suffering from is a common ailment among writers: whatifitis. Easily treated.”
“That’s great, doc! What’s the cure?”
The doctor holds out a book. “Oh, just purchase this for $9.99. Everything you need to know is in there!”
I’ve lost count of the number of story premises I’ve drafted. Great ideas for characters and concepts for conceits litter my notebooks and laptop.
But every time – every single time – I’ve tried crafting a full story from these ideas, I end up facing the same dilemma: how much should actually make it into the story? Which elements should make the journey from “part of the world building process” to “included in the story itself?”
Even if I picked a foundation for a story, I couldn’t resist tinkering with it long enough to knock out a finished story.
And I finally figured out why.
I call it “whatifitis,” the constant game of asking, “what if?”
- What if this protagonist only thinks he killed his boss, but someone else really did it and framed him?
- Or…what if the protagonist’s son killed the boss in a hit-and-run accident?
- Or…what if the protagonist was dating his boss’s daughter on the sly?
Whatifitis is great for coming up for ideas for stories. It’s an awful lot of fun, too, but if you don’t eventually cure yourself of this condition, you’ll never get around to writing the actual story itself.
I confess to coming down with whatifitis. A lot.
Maybe you have, too. If so, read on.
Diagnosing the Real Cause of Whatifitis
When I examined why I found whatifitis such a pleasant condition, I realized it was a symptom with a deeper cause.
And I think I may have found that underlying cause: I love playing the storytelling shell game.
But before I get into what that is, I need to do a quick review of narrative arithmetic (I promise it won’t hurt…much).
As a writer, you have the insanely limitless power to bring not just characters, items, and places into existence, but also to craft entire worlds with a few well-selected words. But the old saying, “less is more,” applies in spades here, as readers do not want to know every detail about the world a story inhabits.
Well, most don’t.
I confess to having picked up the “Aliens – Colonial Marines Technical Manual,” all three of the “Making Of…” Star Wars books, “Firefly: A Collection,” and tons of other similar books expanding on my favorite story worlds.
But that’s not really a fair comparison.
I sought out more information about these worlds after I finished the story that introduced me to these worlds. I certainly didn’t need or want that level of detail bloating the stories themselves.
No, most writers struggle as much with what not to include in the story as with what to share with readers.
Does the reader need to know which university a character attended? The exact height of a character? How old a particular city is? The color of the hotel the character stayed in? What about a secret the character has?
Drama is life with the dull parts left out. – Alfred Hitchcock
You may be a writer who jumps into your first draft with only a precursory attempt to document their characters’ backgrounds, the details of the story world, etc. You build the world of your story – that is, everything about the world the story inhabits – in parallel with your story.
Or you may spend weeks or months detailing and documenting the world and its characters before committing the first word to your first draft.
Regardless of your approach, the resulting story is but a tiny part of the story world. It’s a small collection of elements consciously chosen and (hopefully!) arranged into an entertaining experience. There are always things you know about a story and its world that readers are never privy to.
String the elements of your story carefully, use a strong narrative thread, tie it all up nicely, and readers will treasure your narrative necklace for years.
So, while the crafting of a story is about subtraction, the reading of a story is about addition – writers reveal to readers a series of sequential elements. Two sides of the same narrative coin, as it were.
To review: writers distill a world down into a subset of elements (subtraction) which are then arranged in a particular way and presented in a particular order to the reader (addition), resulting in a specific story experience.
Now, the selection and order of elements revealed to readers dictates the quality of the experience. Select the wrong elements and/or choose the wrong order, and the reader is likely to offer a single-star review. Select the right mix of elements and present them to the reader in the proper order, and you have a best-seller on your hands.
All right, the math review is over. See, it wasn’t that bad!
The Paradoxical Freedom of Literary Limitations
I’ve talked with other writers and given a lot of thought to figuring out why I keep coming down with whatifitis and, more importantly, how I can cure myself.
Here’s my never-graduated-from-medical-school diagnosis: as soon as I choose a particular set of assumptions about a world (i.e., I answer a finite number of “what if?” questions and begin writing the story), I am locking part of the world into place – and part of me rebels at being locked in.
Unless you have the ability to time travel (hello, Doctor Who!), you’re stuck with whatever past you create.
- Indiana Jones will always have a father who is also an archaeologist.
- The Master Chief will always be the one who saved Cortana (or is it the other way around?).
- Super spy Archer Sterling will always be wee baby Seamus’ father.
Now, here’s where I think I may have found a possible cure for whatifitis (for me, anyway – heaven only knows what’s swimming in your system).
The paradox to being locked into a particular history is that it grants you, the writer, an amazing gift: the ability to perform magic.
Some of the most dramatic and memorable moments in storytelling happen when everything we previously knew about a world gets turned on its head.
- Darth Vader didn’t kill Luke’s father, he IS Luke’s father
- Cole really can see dead people in “Sixth Sense,” which is why he can see Dr. Crowe, and OMG, that means DR. CROWE IS ACTUALLY DEAD!
- Or consider any scene when a character does something unexpected or surprising
These moments have impact because they cut against the grain of expectation readers have come to look for. They upend our previously held beliefs about a world and its characters.
That’s where their power comes from.
Once I understood that locking things down gives me a solid footing for moving forward, everything changed.
My choices weren’t anchored chains holding me back – they were support structures for a solid story foundation.
Even better, I realized I could now perform some storytelling sleight of hand. In fact, that’s what good writers do: a little magic, some sleight of hand, a round of storytelling shell games.
Here’s how they did it – and how you can, too.
“…and the Only Cure is
More Cowbell Playing Shell Games”
But deciding which elements to select is only the first hurdle. Equally difficult is sorting them into the proper order.
- Is this character’s realization that her mentor betrayed her best used as an inciting incident…or would it serve better as a later revelation?
- Should this character enter the story already damaged…or would the reader be better served by watching the damage unfold as it happens?
- When should I reveal that this city is built on the site of a 3,000 year-old civilization’s capital…that was wiped out by its current inhabitants? Or does that secret remain hidden from the reader?
Deciding where to drop the reader into the story is only the first part. The second part involves deciding what next to reveal to the reader and, crucially, when.
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. – Orson Welles
Viewed through this lens, world elements fall into one of three categories depending on where – or more precisely, when – in the story you happen to be.
Think of each element as a ball and each category as a shell. As a writer, you decide which balls go under which of the three shells:
1) Revealed: the reader is explicitly told the world element (e.g., “John dropped the papers on the table in front of Ellen. ‘I want a divorce.'” – John has filed for a divorce from his wife, Ellen).
2) Implied: logical deductions, inferences, or conclusions drawn by the reader but not explicitly told by the writer (e.g., “The young girl wandered the streets as she had for as long as she could remember: alone.” – the reader infers that her parents are dead or long since gone from the girl’s life).
3) Unknown: elements known by the writer but not by the reader (e.g., Talia’s mother gave up her sister for adoption but never told Talia – this will affect how Talia’s mother interacts with Talia, but the writer never tells the reader about the adoption).
Let’s say you have all the world elements figuratively laid out in front of you. As you construct a story, you’re pulling certain elements from the pile and placing them under one of the three shells: Revealed, Implied, or Unknown.
By the end of the story, all of the Revealed elements are known to the reader, none of the Unknown ones have been shared, and the reader has a set of Implied elements (which may or may not match what the writer hoped the reader would have).
Now, here’s where it gets interesting: writers can move elements from one shell to another. At will. Whenever they want.
It’s not exactly sleight of hand, but it’s pretty magical when done well!
As elements change their narrative state, the reader’s experience changes, sometimes dramatically.
It’s usually a re-contextualization of previously known information, resulting in a “whoa…” or “didn’t see that coming!” moment in a story that leaves readers knocked off their heels.
Want to know just how much magic writers have? You can create elements out of thin air, on demand, drop them under a shell as desired, and then move them – at will – between the shells.
No one knows precisely where the Orphan Black showrunners are taking things in two, five, or ten years. The show’s writers are in the dark about certain things as much as the viewers are.
So, not only do writers pull elements out of thin air, they magically move them around under the narrative shells at will, surprising and delighting readers in the process.
Okay, so what does all this mean to you as a writer?
Play Some Shell Games, Have Fun with Math, Make Some Magic
First, if you find yourself coming down with a case of whatifitis, realize that too many choices is bad – really bad – when you’re trying to start a story. The more concrete of a premise and foundation you can build, the more stable your story will be.
Second, you actually need a strong foundation if you want to pull off the kind of narrative magic that leaves readers blown away and wanting more. You have to establish the grain of the story before you can move against it.
Third, remember that writing a story is an act of subtraction, while reading a story is an act of addition.
Fourth, you are a writer, which means you’re also a magician. You can, and should, surprise your readers.
Lastly, you have the power to wow your readers with magic and dazzle them with an impressive shell game.
Having said that, understand that in some storytelling cases, it’s actually better to have a loose framework. These cases are usually limited to improvisational situations like live-action role-playing games or table-top RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. In improvisational scenarios, the goal is to provide a certain degree of fluidity and openness to the story, allowing others to contribute or influence its direction.
Collaborative storytelling is a completely different process from the lonely art of writing a book by yourself.
Which brings me to a conversation I recently had with a fellow writer and friend, Corey Reid. He was sharing similar challenges with locking down a solid foundation for his stories, and after some reflection, he realized his challenge was a result of his deep background in the RPG world.
He’s written about that over at the Dino Pirates Ninja Island site , and I highly encourage you to CLICKY-CLICKY right now and check it out (and if you like dinosaurs, ninjas, and pirates blended to a pulp, you will be dutifully impressed!).
Bonus: More Magic!
While writing this post, I came across a lovely article at Suvudu.com by Chris Beckett in which he talks about how he uses magic in his writing to convey imaginary objects to readers. A quick but powerful read for writers working with imaginary worlds.