It’s all very well to have plenty of writing time. But what do you do if your idea bucket is not only empty but leaking? “What if?” is a question I use often, both to develop a story and to solve ‘plot-holes’ during the writing.
For example, there’s the reader favourite of twins switching places. Usually the hero is fooled for a time. But what if the hero knows from the start that the twins have switched places, and decides to teach them a lesson? This question turned into the inspiration for my book, Centrefold.
One twin is a financial journalist and the other is a centrefold model for a men’s magazine? The finance writer loses her job after she is mistaken for her model twin. When the opportunity arises for her to take her twin’s place, she decides she may as well, since she’s getting the blame anyway. Unbeknown to her, the photographer is not only dating her sister, he sees through the plan right away. Cue a story I had a lot of fun writing.
“What if the hero had arrived by UFO?” became the basis for The Leopard Tree. The book was originally accepted by Mills & Boon, London, until Alan Boon decided British readers weren’t quite ready for a hero with UFO connections, and wanted me to remove this element.
I felt strongly that the hero’s air of mystery highlighted the sense of him being a loner, the odd man out in his community, and decided against making the change. The book was eventually published with the UFO element by Harlequin’s then-sister company, Silhouette Books in New York. Sometimes you have to wait for your readers to catch up with your ideas.
Writing my 3-book series, Outback Code, gave me a whole string of what-if moments, starting with the question, what if there was a long lost goldmine on the characters’ outback property? Each book in the series had its own romantic elements, but the over-arching mystery wasn’t solved until book three, with each couple contributing more pieces to the puzzle.
Probably my favourite what-if became Operation Monarch, a romantic suspense novel set in my island kingdom of Carramer. The what-if question was whether the hero, a notorious bad boy, was really the heir to the throne. The heroine was the present monarch’s bodyguard assigned to the hero until the what-if was resolved.
If you’re going to spring a major what-if on readers, you need to plan how you’ll overcome obstacles that would normally get in the way. Resolving whether my hero was the true heir could be handled by DNA testing. Despite what we see on TV, DNA testing takes a couple of weeks for a result, for now anyway. There are faster versions but they aren’t as conclusive as the slower method.
This gave me a time limit when my hero and heroine had to deal with the situation and each other.
Later, in Desert Justice, I played with another reader-favourite trope, the idea of a ruling sheikh as hero with an Australian woman caught up in a plot against his life. Having one or another character falling in love in unfamiliar surroundings, is often called a “fish out of water” story. This plot appeals to me because it links to a “core decision” formed by my family’s many house moves, making me a perennial fish out of water. We make these decisions about ourselves early in life and they can be hard to change.
When you’re told that readers want fresh, new stories, it’s tempting to think you need a bizarre plot that no-one has done before. But tropes such as twins or sheikhs remain popular for a reason, pitting your characters against each other on a deeply emotional level.
These tropes work provided you give them your own unique twist, as I did by having the hero catch on to the twin substitution right away. In another book, my characters agreed to a pretend marriage to comfort a dying friend who wanted to see them get together. The heroine was a stunt woman who worked in movies, giving me the perfect twist. What if the actor she asked to be their marriage celebrant was a real celebrant in his day job, and the ceremony was legal?
You can use what-ifs to play with plots and ideas as long as you keep the emotional tug-of-war between the attraction the characters feel, and the conflict keeping them apart.
Have you ever used a what-if to kick start your story? How did it work? Share your thoughts in the comments box below. They’re monitored to avoid spam but your comment can appear right away if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.
Congratulations to Kristin Silk, 2020 winner
of the Valerie Parv Award. I look forward to
mentoring Kristin in the months ahead.