It’s an old truth that there are few new stories; only new ways of telling old ones. Even dear old Willy Shakespeare borrowed a good number of his storylines from a variety of sources, just as writers have been borrowing from him (and his contemporaries) ever since. Indeed, it’s the way stories are interpreted to reflect the age we live in and the way story-tellers use language, form and structure to tell those stories that counts more than anything else. It’s about providing interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking variations on a theme.
Good versus evil, life versus death, loyalty and betrayal, unrequited love, the love triangle, the nature of reality, identity and belonging, rites of passage, crime and punishment, war and peace ... these are stories we all know and about which we enjoy hearing endless variations.
But it’s about being surprised too. And one of the tasks of the writer is to challenge the reader’s expectations and to lead them places they might not otherwise have thought about going. To this end, one of the questions most writers have to ask themselves, I believe, is: What if?
What if this had happened instead of that?
What if the character decides to act in this way rather than that?
What if the path were to lead into this dark and tangled forest rather than into that clearing?
What if there's a landmine in the middle of that clearing?
The possibilities are endless, and I find I spend a lot of my ‘writing time’ exploring different possibilities before I choose to create a map of any particular one, and then to see how characters might respond to being there. Perhaps it leads to a warped view of the world too, this sense that anything might happen---from the absurdly sublime to the beautifully ridiculous.
I was very amused when a friend sent me the following Eddie Izzard sketch on Facebook this week (thanks, Mara). It applies the question ‘What if?’ to the problems Darth Vader may have faced when queuing for food in the Death Star’s canteen. Star Wars fans should enjoy!