Raising Tension, Conflict, and Stakes: Asking What If?

When I was an intern at Ice Cube Press, I attended some events with my boss. At every event, the same questions always came up:

“Can I send my manuscript to you?”

“I sent you a query. Have you read it yet?” (Awkward!)

“My book is XYZ. Is that something your press will publish?”

“I like writing but never written a book. How do I go about doing that?”

Then my boss would answer:

“Why not.”

“I’ll have to look at my inbox.”

“Could be.”

“Just start writing. Ask yourself what if. What if character does X? Should character do Y? What if he does Z? What if character wants to do W and V?”

His Getting-Started advice always stuck with me. Asking “What If” is a good way to come up with an overall plot, and soon one idea will lead to another to form a story. It’s amazing how one question can open up to an amazing story like so:
-What if a child is the only one to survive a Dark Lord’s killing curse? (Harry Potter)
-What if children have to participate in an annual fight-to-the-death game? (Hunger Games)
-What if a ring is the only way to end an evil regime? (Lord of the Rings)

Asking What If for Better Tension & Conflict
Now that I’m back doing my own writing, I ask myself the “What If” question all the time, but not to get started. I use it to strengthen my plot. As I revise my novel, I look for spots that need more conflict. Then I ask myself, “How can I make this more interesting? How can I make the situation worse for my protagonist? What if XYZ happens to my character?”

Fiction is about how protagonists overcome conflicts and obstacles to achieve their goals. Obstacles are the fuel that keeps stories moving. Normally, the protagonist’s biggest obstacle is the antagonist, but stories are made up of many, smaller obstacles that lead up to the climax. From my own writing to reading manuscripts, I know writers struggle to keep the fuel going, but if you pause to ask yourself “What if?” you can come up with many scenarios to keep your story moving. Just take Harry Potter for example:

-What if Harry receives a mysterious letter and his aunt and uncle refuse to let him read it?
-What if Harry’s rival challenges him to a midnight duel that could get him expelled?
-What if a troll gets inside the school and attacks Harry’s friend?
-What if someone tries to kill Harry during a Quidditch match?
-What if Harry and his friends have to pass a giant, three-headed dog guarding the trap door?

Making What If Personal
Obstacles are only as good if the protagonist cares. For example, if a school threatens to expel a teen if he fails his midterms but he doesn’t care, then there’s no conflict. In a case like this now is a good time to ask “What If” to develop a better conflict.

-What if his mom threatens to sell his precious Mustang if he gets expelled?
-What if he wants to join the military but getting expelled will ruin his chances?
-What if getting expelled means he’ll have to go back to a previous school where he was severely bullied?

Not only do we have a conflict, but we also have stakes. Stakes are what the protagonist has to lose if failing to overcome a conflict. If the teen doesn’t care about getting expelled, then there’s nothing at stake for him, but in the “What-If” examples he does, whether it’s his Mustang, his chances of joining the military, or his safe space.

Stakes are also about consequences. For example, if the protagonist wants a promotion but fails to get it, she’ll still have her original job. She didn’t lose anything or face any consequences. Here’s another situation where we can use the “What If” question to raise the stakes.

-What if she needs the higher salary from the promotion to save her house from foreclosing?
-What if her company is laying off her department and the promotion is the only way she can keep her employment?
-What if the protagonist and the antagonist are the only two candidates for the promotion, and if her rival wins, she will use the higher position to fire the protagonist?

Closing Thoughts:
Ever since I started asking myself “What If?”, there’s been more tension in my stories. I highly suggest using this exercise if you’re someone who experiences writer’s block a lot or thinks you need some more fuel in your stories. Try it! 🙂