When it comes to writing, there are a limited number of story archetypes

The ancient Greeks, for example, recognised three distinct types: comedies, tragedies, and satyr plays. The number of archetypes existing today is far larger, and the advent of the Digital Age means we have hundreds of years of fiction within easy reach. We have so much fiction at our disposal we group it into genres, and further subdivide these categories into subgenres. So with such a wealth of material at our fingertips, how do we write something different, something that stands out from other stories?

Story and Plot

A good story is greater than the sum of its parts, constituent elements like prose, dialogue, and characterisation combining to make something unique. The story’s plot is the framework around which these elements are built, the mannequin awaiting its outfit. Whether you plot your story in advance or plot as you write, two simple words can help deepen your story and take it to unexpected places. All you have to do is ask yourself the question: what if?

There are many ways to develop plots, with varying degrees of complexity. There’s the simple framework provided by the three act structure, alongside other, more complex forms such as the Hero’s Quest as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero With A Thousand Faces. The internet offers plenty of sites with random plot generators. Or, if your tastes run to something more esoteric and less formulaic, you could try Oblique Strategies, musician and producer Brian Eno’s cards with quirky messages designed to promote creativity, and used to great effect in numerous projects including the production of several David Bowie albums.

Asking yourself what if at critical junctures of your story is a simpler option, but also one that can complement any of the aforementioned structures. Revisiting decisions and considering other possibilities is simple enough to achieve, and it may help you see your story with fresh eyes. Depending on how you work, this could be as simple as reviewing a plot outline prior to writing or pausing to consider alternative paths before starting a new chapter.

Genre and Tropes

We group fiction into many broad genres today, and often further subdivide these categories into narrow subgenres to help distinguish between different types of stories. Within these groups there are usually common conventions and familiar tropes: the troubled but brilliant detective; the strong but silent man of action; the ubiquitous hero’s quest of Fantasy. These provide another opportunity for asking, what if?

It’s remarkably easy when writing to fall into familiar patterns, and those patterns tend to be ones we’ve learned from the fiction we consume. But playing with conventions and tropes can lead your writing to interesting places. It doesn’t mean that you need to have something unexpected on every page, but a dash of it here and there can provide contrast and depth. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for example, didn’t just feature a hero defined by his nemesis, but one who was actually created by him during the act of killing Harry’s parents; the seeds of Harry’s journey to becoming a hero sown by his nemesis. The link between the two characters was one Rowling explored in the novels, and playing with conventions and expectations added another dimension to the overall story, and helped it stand out from more prosaic fiction.

The Second Most Important Question

Asking what if is the question at the heart of writing, but coming a close second is, what’s the worst thing that can happen? For a protagonist to overcome adversity, there must first be adversity. Conflict – metaphorical or otherwise – is the crucible where characters shine, revealing their true nature under pressure. Forcing your characters through a gauntlet of nearly impossible challenges is preferable; more risk equals more reward. Raising the stakes in this manner can strengthen your story in addition to shaping your characters. The Star Wars film trilogies are a good example of this: in each trilogy the characters are enmeshed in a conflict affecting not a single world, but an entire galaxy; the ultimate high stakes conflict.

Stepping back periodically and asking what if may help you see your writing in a new light, and if nothing else it will give you options for the story ahead.  It’s a simple question to ask yourself, but it’s surprisingly easy to get locked into an idea. Typically, we stop searching for answers when we’ve found one, and asking what if reminds us that there are other options out there, other solutions to the problem. It’s so obvious we can easily overlook its importance, but asking what if can take your writing to unexpected places.