Playing the “What If" Game

The other day I put my one year old grandson Milo down for his morning nap and retreated to my desk to do some writing, baby monitor in hand. He fell asleep quickly. I eagerly opened up my lap top, figuring I had a good hour and a half to work before he woke up. I dove in and it was a while before I came up for air and looked at my watch. Whoa, more than two and a half hours had zoomed by, and the green light on his monitor hadn’t moved. Milo never slept this long. I pulled up the fuzzy picture on the monitor and gazed at his still form. I’ve always been reluctant to wake up a sleeping baby, but still…

Just as I was getting up to sneak into his room and make sure he was breathing, he began to roll around his crib and finally decided he was ready to get out of there, having set a record for his longest nap ever. I raced in to retrieve him, pressed his little warm body against my own, and covered him with kisses—all the while chiding myself for being so paranoid.

But what if he hadn’t been okay? Becoming a parent, and later a grandparent, unleashes a whole new set of primal fears. We love these little people so fiercely, so completely, that the thought of anything bad happening to them hovers at the jagged edges of our consciousness. Suppose something had gone wrong and Milo had stopped breathing, while I was happily writing, not even bothering to check on him for more than two hours? Or suppose when I pulled up his picture on the monitor, the baby elephant he always sleeps with was gone, along with my grandson?

This is the stuff of nightmares, angst, and incalculable loss. It’s also the stuff of fiction. For stories grab our interest when things go terribly wrong, when problems are not easily or quickly wrapped up—and things get tons worse before they get better. If they get better, that is.

As writers, we’re often asked where we get our ideas. But the truth is, ideas are everywhere. There’s a reason why writers are often advised to play the “what if” game to get ideas for their work. Reflecting on the mishaps, issues, and worries we’ve experienced, or our friends and family members have gone through, and imagining worst case scenarios, can yield more material for our stories than we’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

Case in point: As I’m writing this, we’ve just said goodbye to my grandson’s 26 year old aunt. She was off to meet with her boyfriend of three and a half years and wasn’t anticipating a happy ending for their relationship. A few months ago, she’d started having doubts about her feelings for him which had only escalated. While she was sure a breakup would be painful, it would also be a relief not to be in this uncomfortable limbo.

Suppose, however, it doesn’t turn out quite the way she expects. Suppose he has a difficult time accepting the breakup, and a darker, more dangerous side of his personality emerges? Suppose she discovers she’s pregnant after breaking things off with him? Or suppose she realizes she’s made a huge mistake and wants to reconcile, only to discover that he’s already moved on—with her sister?

You get the picture. Life is full of “What if’s,” and the especially dark ones are the must-have ingredients for fiction. Fortunately for us writers, they’re always on hand.

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