The “What if?” Syndrome by Marie Lavender



If you are an avid follower of this blog, then you know there is a plethora of information, advice to offer.  Guest authors have offered tips on writing from the time the blog first began to grow into what it has become today.  Most aspiring writers know that to look for writing tips on a specific topic (point of view, research, any story elements), it is as simple as doing an internet search.  The world is at our fingertips.  


Unfortunately, for some writers, all of that information can look overwhelming.  What advice did I give in my last article, “What Should I Do Next (in Writing or Publishing”? I said something along the lines of “Just write!”  Just do it and worry about the finer points later (grammar or anything else that needs improvement).  Just write.


It’s just not that easy for some writers.  I have a friend, an aspiring writer, with these great ideas in his head.  He keeps saying, “I really need to write my story.”  I agree.  I encourage him as much as I can.  I try to be supportive and offer advice that might propel him to move forward.  It isn’t fear, though, that blocks him.  It is what I call the “What if?” syndrome.


What if?

Most of the time, we think of those two words as the epitome of being a worrywart.  What if my story is stupid?  What if everyone hates it?  What if I crash and burn?  No, my friend doesn’t lack confidence.  If that were that case, I would say, “Write for yourself.  Write for the love of writing because you’re getting way ahead of yourself.  Readers come later.  You have to love what you write first.  You have to create a story and characters that make you so excited, you have trouble tearing yourself away.”   That’s not bad advice, right?

But, it’s not that issue for this writer.  He has “What if?” syndrome.  Sounds a bit ominous, I know.  Let me explain.  He knows the characters, the plot and story.  They are all in his head.  So, what’s stopping this writer if he seems to have it all together?  The problem is that he can see different avenues, so many directions the story could take and he can’t decide on one to save his life.


Say you have the basic premise of a man walking down the street.  Or at least the sidewalk.  He’s carrying a briefcase, and his gait is a little stiff from an old injury.  He is a polished gentleman in his attire, but let’s add in a habit of readjusting his tie when he’s nervous.  He also tends to sweat a lot.  He is sweating more today as he ambles along.  He has a lot on his mind.  Why?  He just had a disturbing phone call.  We’re creating quite a picture, right?  Any fiction writer could expand on this premise and keep going.  But, to make things more exciting, we’ll add in some possibilities:

What if he entered a nearby apartment building?  Who would he visit?

What if he used the elevator and it got stuck?

What if he was still walking down that street and a bike messenger clipped him?  What would he do?

What if a car drove by and splashed through puddles made by that morning’s rain and he got drenched?

What if the moment he steps into the street to cross the road, he gets hit?  Then he wakes up two days later, not knowing who he is or anything about that disturbing phone call.

The list can go on and on.  So many possibilities, right?  This is the writer’s dilemma, my friend’s problem.  The premise I just mentioned has nothing to do with his story at all.  It’s just an example.  

One day, the writer in question told me all the different routes his story could take and I was unimpressed.  Why?  It wasn’t that any of the ideas were bad.  They were great.  It wasn’t that they weren’t feasible.  Sure, each one covered a different genre, but you can go in any direction with fiction.  It wasn’t even that I was frustrated by my friend’s inability to pick a scenario and run with it.  

You see, I remembered the way he spoke about the story originally.  I recalled the “spark” in it, the excitement in the way he described it.   


And even though it was kind of the same with the other ideas, it wasn’t the same at all.  He already had this golden nugget, this genius seed of an idea forming, and he didn’t even know it.  He knew, for the most part, what would happen in the story; he didn’t have some of the finer details, but I digress.  What bothered me about these proposed changes was just a simple matter, but something we authors have to rely on at every turn.


Trust.

“Huh?  Marie, have you lost it again?”

LOL.  No, but I will explain.  To write a good story, you not only have to trust your own instincts, you have to trust your characters and your vision for the story.  Deep down, you know what’s right, what direction to go.  Sometimes it’s the story telling you.  Sometimes the characters are running the show.  It should naturally progress.  It doesn’t matter what project you’re working on; you will encounter this dilemma at some point.  

Am I ever plagued by “What if?” scenarios during a story’s composition?  Sure.  I’ll run into roadblocks where I think, “So what happens next?”   


A bunch of ideas go through my head, most of them at odds with each other.  I step away and give myself a pep talk.  When I come back to it later, I have a better perspective.  Sometimes one of those scenarios is really good and it works; most of the time they don’t work.  

See, we like to think we’re in control as writers.  We’re not.  Sometimes I am just the conduit.  No, I’m not crazy.  The story, the characters take control.  You can exercise some control over certain details, but the story usually tells itself.  That’s what I have to tell myself in the “What if?” situations.


“How do you know all of this, Marie?”

Because I’ve been there many times.  For example, when I was writing the manuscript for Upon Your Honor, I had half-convinced myself to make drastic changes (I won’t go into details) because I thought it would satisfy readers who were used to the genre.  In the end, the characters decided for me and none of it would have seemed right if I hadn’t listened to them and to what the story was telling me.


Always trust your original vision for a story.  Try to be true to it as much as you can.  Your characters will tell you what comes next.  The story will feel like it’s writing itself when you’re really into it.  During revisions and editing, then you can look at the whole picture and see if those other “scenarios” would even fit at that point.   


The “What if?” questions are a way to second guess your instincts.  

Trust yourself as a writer.  Trust your instincts.  They will never lead you astray.  Never.  As for the “What if” syndrome?  File those scenarios away for future use.  They might come in handy for another story.  Or, just be amused and move on.  Your story will tell you what to do next.

Comments

  1. Marie, this is great advice. I am really thankful for your blog and for your insight into the issue of telling a story. You';re right about the story telling itself. If your guy has so many 'what if", then he probably has several stories in his head somewhere, pushing and shoving, trying to get out. This is not a problem, but as asset. He just diesnt knoiw it. There's no point asking "why", about any if this, it's just the way it is.
    Writing down ideas always helps. For one thing, you dont forget a great punch line.
    Someone recently asked, "how do you fit in summer activities and writing," The answer to anyway is simple. You're either a writer or ya not. If ya want to do "summer things", then do just them, if ya want to be a writer, ya'll figure out ya own compromise.

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  2. Judith o'malley-fordJuly 29, 2014 at 12:06 AM
    sorry about the previous typos...pressing the button prematurely is a problem....
    Marie, this is great advice. I am really thankful for your blog and for your insight into the issue of telling a story. You''re right about the story telling itself. If your guy has so many "what if", then he probably has several stories in his head somewhere, pushing and shoving, trying to get out. This is not a problem, but as asset. He just diesnt know it. There's no point asking "why", about any if this, it's just the way it is.
    Writing down ideas always helps. For one thing, you dont forget a great punch line.
    Someone recently asked, "how do you fit in summer activities and writing," The answer to ME anyway is simple. You're either a writer or ya not. If ya want to do "summer things", then just do them, if ya want to be a writer, ya'll figure out ya own compromise.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 'what if' makes my writing possible. I use 'what if' to get me going and can not often stop to take care of home chores, etc. I use my own term for 'what if'. That is from star trek of course. Star writing - to boldly go where no other writer has gone before. Where else could my female star sing her way through the script, have my characters fly(think of the skateboard in Back to the Future), and have the earth, sea, and sky, come to the rescue time and again. See what fun that 'what if' and 'star writing' can bring to your writing. Terry of the Chronicles of Orm series.

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  4. Marie - you present your material well! I have the what if syndrome like most writers but recently I've been bogged down by impatience. I want, almost expect to write a first draft from A to Z without roadblocks and false starts. I've struggled too much with the "what happens next" and spend far too much time trying to outline my story so all I need to do is follow the blueprint. Today I decided to go back to what I used to do, scrap that approach, and wrote over 2,500 words of a short story I have been tossing around for a couple of months. And I found what you stated - the characters took me where they wanted to go, and scenes showed up I hadn't thought of in my original premise. I always enjoy reading your posts - very professionally written and easy to understand! Thanks!

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  5. Great advice, Marie. We all suffer from self doubt at various stages and if you let it get the better of you it can be debilitating. I like your advice to 'just write' and trust yourself and the story. Nice to read. I've been going through a little bit of doubt myself recently. Thank you :)

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  6. As with everyone else, I've gone through this syndrome myself though not to the extent of your friend! What I do is use each "what if" idea for a different story. I'll write notes or the beginning of each and go back later to work on one or two after I've finished a book, or if I'm stuck in one story and need to air out my brain. Sometimes the "what ifs" don't work out and I toss them. Most of them do though. Good post Marie!

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  7. When the time is right, his story will surface.
    No need to fret, no need to worry.
    He is just not ready. Then one day to your surprise,
    'Out of the Blue', it will appear. In His Time.

    ReplyDelete

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