I can’t remember who said that screenwriting is all about asking yourself the right questions, but undoubtedly one of the most important questions a screenwriter can ask is, “What if?” Whatever level of detail you’re considering, whether you’re thinking about an event in a scene or brainstorming basic ideas for a story, the same little query is a wonderful way of exploring the possibilities.
What if it starts to rain during the ceremony?
What if he turns out to be an alien in disguise?
What if the theme were honour rather than greed?
What if she’s infertile?
What if they only have four hours to break the code?
“What if?” is a beautiful tool but it only works if you’re prepared to let go of preconceptions. Especially if someone else is asking the question.
Like if your producer asks, after reading the fifth re-write, “What if the protagonist were ten years younger, and a woman instead of a man?” You know it’s implausible, you know you’ve meticulously constructed every beat and scene in the script around the concept of a man in his fifties, you know you’ll have to almost start from scratch. But hey, she might have a point. What if …?
“What if?” can also be of great value in terms of method.
What if I approach this scene in a completely different way? What if I set aside all my pre-conceived ideas about character arc, structure, acts, sequences and so on, and just let my creative mind wander for a while? What if I allow myself to simply imagine things?
And here’s another great thing about the “What if?” question: There’s no right or wrong answer. Sometimes the question will yield a long list of possible outcomes, sometimes it will point to that one twist that’s been eluding you for months. But it always clarifies something, as long as you’re willing and able to take the answer seriously. So don’t be afraid of asking. In fact fear of “What if?” is a sure sign you’re clinging to a baby you might intuitively know you should kill but don’t want to because of all the extra work that entails …
One last thing about “What if?”: It’s just an exploratory question. By asking “What if?” you haven’t committed to anything. Nothing in the script changes unless you start typing. If none of the answers make your story better, then just put them aside (or store them in your “ideas” file) and get on with your life.