As a speculative-literary writer, I often find myself drawn to playful or weird thought experiments that I use to think through different ideas on the page, many turning into more serious stories, often propelled forward by questions like "What If...?" Almost any idea could be turned into a thought experiment and put into "What if?" structure, but I'd argue that's not a problem: that actually the formulation of an idea in "What if?" structure can inject it with narrative energy and jumpstart an otherwise stagnant concept into complete strangeness, and story.
Here's an example and mini exercise to try right now:
Make an observation, about literally anything. For example: I'm looking out the window right now, and I see a flock of birds (dark eyed juncos, for the other bird-lovers out there!).
Now, take your mundane observation and imagine around the edges, postulating something slightly outlandish (literally anything) about it, beginning with the phrase "What if...?" To use my example: What if that's the last flock of birds in existence? Or what if that flock of birds is following me, and has been, for years? What if that flock of birds is spying on me, from another universe? Or, as Karen Russell clearly did in her new New Yorker story, What if that flock of birds is dead, a ghost flock?
See how suddenly we are summersaulting into possibility, into the unknown, each one a potentially interesting story that could explore some bigger Truth, just by asking a series of "What if?" questions? A mystery has been created, and it has tendrils that lead to other mysteries. Of course, eventually you will want to have a sense of what your thought experiment / "What if?" scenario is exploring and/or trying to get at, but that can come later. The "What if" questions have given us something to ponder on the page, a breadcrumb trail to follow.
What else can asking "What if?" do for a story or an idea? Let's go deeper:
It can break you out of the rigid "first way" the story came to you. Recently, I went down a very deep "What if?" rabbit hole as I revised my novel's opening pages - and it's the reason the chapter eventually found its footing, but before this I spent months trying to wrangle those early events and characters in my novel's opening without asking the difficult questions - which are also the wild, fun, terrifying, exciting questions. Eventually, aware of the chapter's deep problems, I began asking "What if?" questions about almost everything I could: What if I considered different professions for my protagonist? How would that shift her skills, traits, desires, and fears? What if instead of just visiting, A and B move in with his mother? What if they have no other choice, and this is their last resort? What if things get even worse after that, and their relationship falls apart? Suddenly, the unlimited possibilities of the story seemed like tangible options: both the silly, obviously wrong ones as well as the compelling "right" ones - and everything in between. These options are always available, if you want to see them, if you're ready to look beyond the often-precious "first way" the story has manifested. It can feel counterintuitive to lead yourself down a "What if?" rabbit hole - like the very process of this deep-tissue questioning could unravel the whole thing - but I'd argue that it's the process that could most lead to narrative breakthroughs too. I sometimes fill pages with all the possibilities for each scene, all the many permutations and possible variations, then I try to sniff out what makes the most sense given my goals for the story, or more accurately, given what the story is trying to be itself.
It can help you find your story's pulse and get "unstuck". We all do a kind of imaginative wandering when we write - skipping from one association or thought to the next - which is essentially what the "What if?" process is. For me, it's what makes writing feel enlivening, energizing, fun. Yet my experience is that when I'm stuck, I often shut down this exploratory wandering, or don't know how to access it. It can often feel threatening, or silly, to the "stuck" mindset to begin throwing questions around. Similarly, when a story is struggling to find it's purpose or pulse, it can feel weirdly paralyzing to open up to too much possibility, and yet this is probably what's needed most. Why? Because by asking "What if?" you are saying "yes" to the process of exploration, and if you say yes to exploration in creative work, you'll find something on your journey, whether or not it's what you think you're looking for or need. It might surprise you!
It can help us find the questions most closely tied to our story's stakes. Very simply, the "What if" tool can help connect a story to what is most at stake to be gained or lost, often by asking the simple question, "What if it got worse?" Suddenly, we have to answer what "worse" would be for our characters: the question has pointed us toward what matters most for them, for the story, as well as (often) what the story is trying to communicate. (See below prompts for a guided example of this!)
It can help us find what we are most interested in writing about. A funny thing happens when you begin asking "What if?" questions, about either a specific idea you want to develop, or in context of a piece you're working on: you are naturally going to come up with questions that reflect your own deepest thoughts, interests, quandaries, beliefs, doubts, fears, hopes, etc. - about the world, people, psychology, the universe, everything. It's pretty exciting.
It can free us from seriousness. I think this may be my favorite thing about asking "What if?" in a given scene or story, or with a new idea: It reminds me of the story's aliveness, its flexibility, adaptability, that it is a shifting, breathing "thing" that could manifest in any number of ways. Stories are not brittle stalks (or "wan little husks") ready to snap, they are portals into our thinking, our minds, what makes us alive, and asking "What if" and trying out the options can reveal the ease with which a story or idea can bend and try on new shapes. More than anything, asking "What if" seems to give us permission to experiment - and experimentation, play, trying new things, stepping into the strange and sometimes terrifying unknown is the definition of the creative process.
Beyond this, what are some qualities of the best thought experiment / "What If" stories?
They ask two "What if" questions: internal and external. In any of the stories listed below, you'll see this illustrated gloriously. For example, in Brockmeier's "The Ceiling" the literal, external thought experiment goes along the lines of, What if a ceiling descended on you - on the whole world? How could you live? What would you do? Yet all the while we never lose sight of the other question - the deeper one - Brockmeier is also asking: What if your partner betrayed you? What if you found out? How could you live? What would you do? The questions are very different, yet ultimately both about being trapped in a hopeless situation. It's a fascinating interplay.
They aren't afraid of pushing the situation to its extremes, and into the strange. Inherent in the very idea of the thought experiment as a creative tool is a kind of curiosity as to what would happen if the situation continued on, worsened, intensified, played out fully? To do this requires a certain boldness, as the deeper meaning of a story (or lack of a clear meaning) is often revealed to the writer as tensions escalate. The best stories are not afraid of their extreme edges, yet they also don't go there just for shock value. They ramp up into the extreme and strange in a way that helps define the meaning or Truth they are trying to articulate, without overly defining either.
They engage the big, human questions in ways that feel fresh and tangible. The beating heart of a thought experiment is to get at these big questions in ways that also feel interesting on the level of story, and believable and compelling on the level of character.
Here are some of my favorite short stories where I feel each author stretching, playing with thought experiments, asking the juicy "What if?" questions around their story's premise:
"The Rememberer" (Aimee Bender): What if your lover began to experience reverse evolution?
"The Ceiling" (Kevin Brockmeier): What if your world - literal and emotional - collapsed on you?
"The Barn at the End of Our Term" (Karen Russell): What if you ended up somewhere else when you died?
"Endangered" (Allegra Hyde): What if, "The artists were kept in cages".
"Foresight" (Lara Ehrlich): What if you could know every possible path your life could take?
Almost any Ted Chiang story! (Highly recommend both of his story collection for anyone interested in thought experiments handled very technically, scientifically, & philosophically.)
Writing prompts that play with “What If?”
I'm a huge fan of prompts, both as a writing instructor in my workshops and as a writer who uses them frequently in her own work. My viewpoint on prompts is that they often help us get out of our own way, trick us into being more playful, more free, not taking ourselves or the work so seriously. A good one will often show you something new about your own capabilities and styles as a writer if you run with it and get curious rather than judgmental. Playing with prompts can give us a break from the "serious" writing project, and yet at the same time they have a sneaky tendency (at least for me) to often relate in some way to the project most on my mind, although I often discover this after-the-fact. These prompts - inspired by the Craft Musings topic - are from a Community Writing gathering I led this fall at Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop, the literary arts organization I run. I hope you enjoy them, adapt them as needed, and happy writing!
Generating a "What If" List (Warm Up) - 5 minutes
Begin with whatever "What If" question first comes to mind (or observations that you then turn into what ifs) and write down as many different "What Ifs" as you can. These can be completely banal, cliche, or unoriginal. The idea with this list is to clear out the gunk before the juicy ideas come.
Next, choose one of your statements that feels most interesting to you, and write a list of "What Ifs" that delves deeper into it alone, exploring more specific concepts within it.
Takeaway Tip: Generate a "What If" list anytime you're stuck in a writing project, with a scene, with what happens next, with an ending, or anything at all. It can always be as specific or general as you want, and there's no way to do this wrong.
Escalating a "What If?" Into a Full Story - 15 minutes or longer
Think of a character, any character. Could be a character you're working with already, or a completely new and intriguing one. Now, think of literally any small problem this character could have. A small, mundane problem is actually better at this point. Imagine it as: What if X happened to Y? This could be something like a dishwasher breaking, an uninvited family member showing up for dinner, forgetting a work meeting, etc. Write for 5 minutes about your character experiencing this problem.
Now, what if it got worse? Imagine all the different ways the problem could escalate: which are the most interesting to you? What escalation feels the strangest, least expected? What escalation might yield the most resonant meaning later? Write for 5 minutes, escalating the problem.
Now, what if it got even worse? In what ways can the problem escalate even more, possibly to an absurd level, and what are the consequences and repercussions? What new factors come into play with this escalation? What other characters are affected? What actions are your character (and others) forced to take? Is there a ticking clock - a time limit - that puts even more pressure on the situation? Write for 5 more minutes, snowballing the effects of this escalated problem.
What I’m reading and listening to
Here's a list of what I've been listening to and reading over the last couple months:
Okay, I am not fully ready to talk about the awesomeness of Sequoia Nagamatsu's debut novel, How High We Go In the Dark, because I'm still reading (savoring), but let me just say it is pretty out-of-this-world incredible. It is, to put it mildly, a transcendent experience. Sequoia Nagamatsu is that rare writer who can tap astutely and vulnerably into the most human aspects of storytelling while at the same time conjuring mind-bendingly bold, futuristic worlds that contain things like talking pigs, robotic dogs that store the last words of the dead, a light-years-spanning voyage that transports humanity to new worlds, and so much more. I'm in awe of how he keeps us grounded in the grittiest, most real emotions and conflicts, while also imagining so large. It's not out until early next year, but you will definitely not want to miss this one.
There is a new Karen Russell story, "The Ghost Birds", in The New Yorker which, like everything Karen Russell has ever written, absolutely blew me away. Her sentence-level writing just remains unparalleled, and this story is so poignantly sad, yet also strangely hopeful.
I know I'm late to this party, but how am I just finding James Scott's phenomenal literary podcast, TK with James Scott? In the latest episode, James interviews Tim O'Brien and Speer Morgan (of The Missouri Review) and I was impressed by the depth and authenticity of the conversations - everything from the writing life, death, honesty/dishonesty, to the world of literary magazines. I'm excited to delve into past episodes and to see what comes next!
While I'm by no means a therapist, I've been listening to a fascinating nonfiction audiobook, Laurel Parnell's A Therapist's Guide to EMDR. I grew up with a therapist mother, so perhaps this has sparked the curiosity, but it's also fascinating on the level of understanding character. EMDR is the eye-movement trauma therapy often used to treat PTSD.
What’s new with me
NEW SHORT STORY: My flash-ish short story "The Jackal" - about friends, bullies, grief, and bowling - was recently published as an Online Exclusive at Conjunctions! A surreal experience, as I was an intern at Conjunctions as an undergrad over fifteen years ago.
WRITE WITH ME: I lead a once-a-month, free, virtual, generative gathering called Community Writing, through Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop (the literary arts organization I founded in 2016). It's on the first Friday of every month, 6 - 7:30pm EST, and always features a handful of prompts, time to write, and time to share, discuss, and meet each other. If you're struggling to find writing time and/or just want more community around your writing practice, come join us! It's always fun and writing really does happen! Next session: TOMORROW Friday, November 5 (6 - 7:30pm EST) Free and open to all! RSVP at above link.
PANEL: I'll be moderating a panel discussion at Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop on Sustaining the Book-Length Project, featuring Carolyn Zaikowski, Kate Senecal, Sara Rauch, Celia Jeffries, and Dorian Fox (our Year-Long Manuscript Program instructors). We'll be talking about the challenges of sustaining book-length writing projects as well as tips, strategies, and approaches that can help. Sunday, November 14 (4 - 5pm EST). Free and open to all! Learn more / RSVP here.
AWP 2022: I am elated and grateful that both of the panels I assembled/proposed for the 2022 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference - this coming year in Philadelphia - were accepted as in-person events! The Literary Ghost Story: The Power of Haunted Fiction will feature this dream team of genre-benders: Sequoia Nagamatsu, Kelly Link, Amber Sparks, and Yohanca Delgado. And Wrangling the Beast: Playing with Structure in the First Novel will include the brilliant Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Raluca Albu, and Swati Khurana.
Jennifer Fliss (Virtual) Book Launch & Reading: The phenomenally talented writer Jennifer Fliss has her first book of short fiction coming out this winter, The Predatory Animal Ball, and I'm so excited to be a guest reader at her launch this winter, alongside an incredible lineup of readers (Chris Gonzalez, Lucy Zhang, Meghan Phillips, Kathryn McMahon, and Tyler Barton). Mark Your calendars! Sunday, December 12. More here.
Featured Writer at VSC's Writers On the Rise Reading: My first ever solo reading! I'll be the featured writer at Vermont Studio Center's Writers On the Rise reading this December and I am beyond excited! I'm planning to read from a story I finished while there, also recently accepted for publication, and that I'm pretty sure may be the best thing I've ever written - or is at least my favorite thing I've written. I hope you join me! I promise it will be fun. Thursday, December 16 (7 - 8pm EST). Learn more / RSVP
JOY BAGLIO is a speculative-literary writer and proud Leo living in Northampton MA with her fiance and huggable silkie hen, Pom Pom. Joy is the founder of Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop, a literary arts organization - now completely virtual - offering an array of writing workshops, craft classes, literary events, and editing/coaching services. Her own short fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as Tin House, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Joy's fiction has received generous support from The Elizabeth George Foundation, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Bread Loaf & Sewanee Writers Conferences, The Speculative Literature Foundation, among others. She is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel about ghosts and is represented by Peter Steinberg at Fletcher & Co. You can find her and all published stories at www.JoyBaglio.com
Thank you so much for reading! I'm excited for what's to come, and so grateful for your interest and desire to be part of this. This post is also publicly available, so feel free to share! And if you haven't already you can always subscribe here as well.
I can't wait to try this!! I think I find myself stuck in the same ridges in my stories, too concerned with making my world-building tight and pleasing, so thank you for the push and ideas I need to expand more.