It’s In The Bag

It’s a very simple, but effective premise; your character finds something he wasn’t expecting to find, and is faced with a moral dilemma. The 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and A Simple Plan (1998) adapted from the novel by Scott B. Smith are both based on this simple concept. In both cases the main character finds a bag full of cash. These are excellent examples of beginning with the question “What if?” and then thinking about the worst possible outcomes. You’re basically giving yourself the freedom to be paranoid.

Starting with this one idea, finding something unexpected in a bag, has immense potential. What if the coach of a professional soccer team is organising the team’s equipment before a game and finds a severed head in one of the equipment bags? Who put it there? How did that bag get mixed with the team’s equipment? Was it there to send a message to someone on the soccer team, who owes serious money to a very aggressive loan shark and/or the mafia?

Is your novel or short story a Western? A bag full of cash could fall off a wagon, or stagecoach. Are you writing a science fiction screenplay? An extra crate could be found in the hold of a deep space cargo vessel, containing an unusual device. What happens when a member of the crew tries to activate it, and is successful? Does she find herself in another galaxy or dimension?

To ratchet up the tension, you can have your character do the right thing and still end up in a life threatening situation. He finds a large cache of cocaine and calls the police. Unfortunately for your character, a crooked cop takes the cocaine, but doesn’t drive it to the station or record that he’s taken custody of the illegal drugs. A short time later, members of a drug cartel, who owned the warehouse where the drugs were found, arrive in the city. Now, the corrupt police officer needs to kill your character, before the cartel members talk to him.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. The next time you’re not sure where to go with a story, try asking these questions: What could my character find, that would complicate her life? What could my character find, that might get him killed? What could one of my characters find, that would send the story in an unexpected direction?

Keep writing, there’s still time to tell great stories in 2022!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

What If?

“What If?” is the most powerful question that any writer can ask. This simple phrase is the catalyst that opens the mind to an endless world of possibilities.

When screenwriters are pitching movie concepts to producers, they always begin with the logline, a one or two sentence description of the story. Even though they don’t usually use the words, “What If?”, that’s the basic concept.  To illustrate how useful the concept is, take a moment to think about your favourite novel or movie. How would you describe the plot in one sentence, beginning with the phrase, “What If?”  For Titanic, my best guess would be: What if a young woman engaged to a man from a wealthy family, fell in love with a poor artist travelling on the Titanic?

I remember watching the original Star Trek series with scenes where Captain Kirk was talking to a Star Fleet commander on a computer screen. In order for that to be written into the script, someone had to ask  himself or herself, “What if future technology will allow people to talk to each other face to face through computers?” Now it’s no big deal, but at the time it seemed like amazing technology.

The reason “What If?” is so effective for fiction writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers, is because it doesn’t imply any limitations. You’re writing a novel and you ask yourself, “What if the largest predator on the planet where my heroine has been stranded has huge razor sharp teeth, spits acid and can both fly and swim?” By continually asking “What If?” you can raise the tension and keep your readers up all night turning pages.

I hope this week you’ll spend some time asking, “What If?” and create great literature. Since it’s probably a cardinal sin for a writer to miss an opportunity to market his or her writing, I should mention the title of my eBook is What If? A Collection of Short Fiction by J. Paul Cooper. You can purchase a copy through Smashwords or other online eBook retailers, or you can ask your local library to order it through Overdrive or Cloud Library.