Jump-start your fiction with two words: What if?
Published: January 25, 2006
|I was young and working as a secretary for Sinclair Lewis, the legendary novelist and America's first Nobel Prizewinner for literature. I was also working on my first novel, and I had horrendous writer's block right in the middle of the book. It was a block comparable to the one Portnoy's father was to suffer from much later. |
One day at lunch I told Lewis of my problem.
"I don't know where my story's going."
"What if there's a knock," he said.
"Knock comes on the door," he said.
"Who?" I asked. Lewis's mind was unquestionably the most inventive, mercurial and brilliant I've ever encountered; I wasn't always able to keep up with its gymnastics.
"A very loud knock," he said.
"But," I said. "Who is doing the knocking?"
"How the hell should I know?" he said. "Surprise me! A forgotten uncle from Peru? The little girl down the street who says her mother has passed out on the floor? A telegram from whomever? A homeless hobo? Whoever or whatever, it is going to enervate all your other characters, cause them to react, create conflict, the fuel of fiction, and your story will automatically go forward."
He was so right.
Thirty-three books later, I still remember those words, not only to cure writer's block, but to start a story or a novel and even become the genesis of the work.
Think of all the great books we've loved over the years that started with What if?
What if the infant son of an English lord was somehow raised by some African apes?
What if a normal young girl fell down a rabbit hole and encountered a bizarre and funny world?
What if a Scottish sailor found himself on a desert island with only one other human being?
What if a deranged Spanish gentleman got it into his head that he must go forth on a crusade of his own making?
My novel Last Boat to Cadiz was the total result of the what-if syndrome that had been percolating for a very long time.
In my early 20s and unable to get into the armed services, I volunteered to the State Department and, as I spoke Spanish, was sent to Seville, Spain, during World War II as an American Vice Consul in the Consulate Service. As the war came to a close, I was introduced to a beautiful young German woman who was not a Nazi, just a German woman married to a Spaniard who was away fighting the Russians.
But! Her godfather was Martin Bormann, Hitler's right hand man, who after helping Hitler commit suicide became the number-one Nazi in the world. He disappeared a week before the war officially ended. And although all the other henchmen of Hitler were accounted for, tried, imprisoned or executed, Bormann was never found.
So, while I would be over at this lovely German lady's apartment, sipping sherry of a pleasant Andalucian afternoon, all I kept thinking about was ... What if?
What if the door suddenly opened, and in came Bormann brandishing a Luger and saying:
"Get me down the river to Cadiz where the submarine that's going to take me to safety in South American awaits!"
And what would I do? Could I possibly overcome this fearsome person? How?
Of course, it never happened. I never met Bormann. I never took that boat down the Guadalquivir River. But I could have. And in fact, I have met Bormann--at least in Last Boat to Cadiz, which, though many true experiences and real characters I knew in that fascinating time appear in the book, is purely and simply: What if?
When you encounter your next writers' block, listen for a knock on the door and amaze yourself- and your reader- as to who is standing there in the doorway.
What if that drab appearing secretary you've been writing about turns out to be a CIA agent? Or the nice old couple down the street are hatching up a bank heist? Or, as in The Da Vinci Code, that really nice guy is the villain?
Surprise yourself, and you will surprise and enthrall your reader. It works!
Barnaby Conrad has written 33 books including the classic bestseller Matador. He is the founder and director of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.
--Posted Jan. 25, 2006