In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
The situation comes first. A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.
It’s intimidating to write a novel. There’s so much work ahead. So much joy, and frustration, and laughter, and sadness. Months and probably years of work are ahead of you.
Yes, it’s going to be hard.
My middle grade horror novel currently on submission to editors took two years to get ready. Fifteen drafts total. I wrote the first draft at the end of 2015, and didn’t complete the final draft until 2018. It was the kind of long haul of revision I never could have imagined, but you know what’s one of the major elements that got me through it?
The situation of the book was and still is so damn compelling to me. The idea of a twelve-year-old aspiring movie director who wants to make the best monster movie ever… by going in search of real monsters? It was one of those ideas that popped into my head one day and made me smile, and I just knew I had to write it.
I didn’t have all the characters yet. I didn’t have the setting, or the time of year, or even what kind of monsters I wanted to feature. I didn’t know the middle and end of the novel either.
But I had the situation.
The “What-If” question Stephen King talks a lot about. If your situation can be expressed through a What-If question, you’re halfway there. If your situation is too complicated or maybe not complicated enough to be expressed in a What-If question, you might be in trouble.
I think back on some of my books I’ve written, and I love being able to sum them up in a single What-If question…
What if a high school jock started aging a whole year of his life with each passing day?
What if a young artist suddenly developed the ability to make people disappear by snapping his fingers?
What if a young aspiring movie director tried to make the greatest monster movie ever by going in search of real-life monsters?
So on, and so forth. Typically the situations that will get you excited can be summed up in a “What-If” question. And if you come up with a really good one, that might be enough to get you motivated for the weeks and months of work to come.
Some people suggest that you should start with your main character, his or her need and goal, and what is keeping him or her from that goal. Yes, this is extremely important. Yes, you should come up with this early on.
But I disagree that this is what you should start with.
The first thing you should come up with is the situation of your story. Not just the genre, or the main character. What kind of situation is happening? What’s the unique premise of your book that is going to compel people to want to read it?
Think of five books you love. Then think of five films you love. Take all ten and try to whittle their stories down into a one-sentence “What-If” question. You’ll probably find it’s easy to do!
You want your own “What-If” question to be easy, too.
And it should also get you excited to get started.
Books are written in all kinds of different ways. There are so many different stages and methods.
But always, always, always start with a strong situation. You’ll be glad you did!