MusclesIf you want to tone and strengthen your muscles, you need to exercise. (Check out the dude on the right; he’s one of my relatives, and I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that those guns didn’t come from pushing a pencil or doing math problems all day.)

The same thing applies to writing: if you want to tone and strengthen your prose, you need to exercise. Lucky for us as writers, that kind of exercise can—and should—come from “pushing a pencil” at least part of the day.

The material that follows helps you get that exercise and is adapted from Melissa Donovan’s post on Writing Forward ( It involves asking a simple question that can help you soar as a writer.


What If?

“What if?” is a useful question to ask at any stage in story development. You can use it to get an initial idea. Consider these examples:

—What if the bones of a fire-breathing, flying dinosaur were discovered buried inside a mountain?

—What if a political strategist was being blackmailed by someone in his own party?

—What if scientists discovered a habitable planet outside of our solar system?

Man looking out window—What if a lonely, older widower fell in love with his married neighbor?

It doesn’t stop there. You can ask “What if?” to further your plot development, characterization, and more. Consider these examples:

—What if a sidekick in your story turned out to be working for the antagonist?

—What if at a moment in your story where a character has to make a choice, you let him choose a different path?

“What if?” is a powerful tool that you can use throughout the story-writing process, especially if you get stuck. You can write lists of what-if questions and answer them with quick sentences to get ideas for where you could steer a story.


Your Exercise:

Make a list of ten stories or books you’ve read. For each one, come up with a what-if question that could have inspired the entire tale.

Next, choose just one of the stories or books from your list. Come up with ten what-if questions that could have led to various character traits, actions, events, and situations that occur throughout the story.


Your Practice:

Make a list of ten what-if scenarios that could form the basis for a book. Then choose one and build on it with at least eight more what-if questions.



To complete this exercise, ask yourself some important what-if questions. What if the central plot of your story works better as a subplot? What if a character isn’t who she appears to be? What if you flip the ending of your story to the opposite outcome? What if your characters make different choices or have different goals? What if the protagonist’s goals align with the antagonist’s goals—who or what becomes the new antagonist?


Melissa DonovanThis storytelling exercise comes from Melissa Donovan’s book Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exerciseswhich takes you through the basics of storytelling by covering a wide range of concepts and storytelling techniques. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, and iBooks.

(Photos: muscled man, Ryan S. Villeneuve, physique by VASA Fitness; man at window, Medical News Today; Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward)


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