“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
This is also true once you start writing a novel after you’ve outlined the plot or done a synopsis. Recently, when working on a novel-in-progress, I had the idea of changing one of the elements to see how it altered the dynamic. I started to wonder if it made more sense for a character to do action B instead of action A, and what the consequences might be for the rest of the novel.
Here are some ‘What Ifs’ for literary contemplation;
- In Fifty Shades of Grey, instead of being a billionaire and CEO of his own corporation, Christian Grey was actually a salesman at Phones 4 U and consistently struggled to meet his sales targets? Then he’d have to pursue Anastasia Steele a bit harder, wouldn’t he?
- In Lord of the Rings, a minor character suggests to Frodo at the beginning of the novel that instead of the long and arduous journey across Middle Earth to Mordor, they simply get the massive eagles to fly them there and back? That would make the ring easier to drop off, right?
This kind of thinking, although definitely useful, can spiral out of control until you have characters doing crazy stuff and a plot that resembles nothing like the original concept you started out with.
Here are a couple of minor ‘What Ifs’ I came up with recently for my own work;
- Instead of owning a restaurant that’s struggling to survive, one of my protagonists is trying to set up a restaurant, and is having trouble with the bank and his credit etc. This way I can have his dream in danger of unravelling from the start.
This occured to me the other day when I had to submit a synopsis for a novel I have been working on for my creative writing course. My restaurant owner would be desperate to keep his business dream alive, allowing scope for my manipulative main character to turn the situation to his advantage. I much prefer this idea, but of course it means a slight re-write for my first three chapters. No big deal.
- The mysterious killer character pays the protagonist a visit mid-way through the novel, instead of only appearing at the end? This would give me another character to introduce into the mix earlier on, and would provide a neat narrative loop for that last scene.
This ‘what if’ came to me a while back when re-reading my completed novel Seven Seconds. I needed more motivation for my main character to make the impulsive decision he takes later in the novel, so an extra scene like this made sense.
Of course, adding in little tweaks and wrinkles into a narrative means you have to revisit the work to make sure it still makes sense across the whole novel. Which means re-writes, lots and lots of re-writes. And what would we do without re-writes? Well, we might even publish something, heaven forbid!
Share your literary ‘What Ifs’ here.
I want to know how different Harry Potter could have been if his adoptive parents had told him he was a wizard from the start. Would he have thought they were nuts and asked Social Services to re-home him? Then the novels could be about his battle with the bureaucracy of social care in modern Britain.