Writing Exercise: If things had been different…

Elizabeth stares at an unfamiliar sight after ...
Elizabeth of BioShock Infinite opens a tear into another timeline. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You already know I’m into Bioshock Infinite, as well as Fringe and the Star Trek reboot. Apart from all being some pretty fun Sci-Fi, all three deal with different timelines and realities. (You’ll also find Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of HeavenRay Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder,  and Terry Pratchett’s Jingo on that list).

It’s a common enough theme in Science Fiction– you see it almost any time you deal with alternate dimensions and time travel– but here’s the refresher:

We think of reality as a system of cause and effect (though I understand The Doctor begs to differ), and so where we are now is the result of our choices in the past. If we’d made a different choice somewhere in the past, we’d be somewhere else entirely.

So where would we be if we’d made different choices? Or more specifically, where would our characters be?

This is a writing exercise I’ve been using to keep from getting getting off-track in my current story. It helps to keep me from burning out or getting off-track on the existing plotline, but it also forces me to think about the world and the characters on a different level.

Most of these I don’t write out in their entirety– not full of prose and dialogue– but rather as a synopsis. I follow the characters from one event to another and see where they go. I’m always adding to this list, but so far it includes What Ifs such as:

  • What if the Villain’s plot goes exactly according to plan? What does that original plan look like, every step of the way? What does the world look like when he’s finished with it? How has he changed by the time he’s finished? Is he any happier for it?
  • What if the Star-Crossed Lovers had never met (okay, so this one was pretty boring for me: they would keep going in the direction they had been at the start of the story. More interesting, in this case:)
  • What if the Star-Crossed Lovers had gotten together, but then decided to break up? What would it take to make them decide on this? How do they go back to living alone once that interdependence has been established? How much did each partner affect the choices of the other? (Playing all the way through this really flipped my expectations of the power dynamic between these two, and gave me a much more intimate look into their respective needs and personalities.)
  • What if the Prisoner hadn’t had to save himself? What if he’d been rescued instead? (This one had the biggest ripples– within a year of that event, the entire world is unrecognizable.)
  • What if the Heroine had chosen a different way of dealing with her problems?

What writing exercises do you use to explore your world? Have you tried this one– and how has it worked for you? Tell us in the comments!


One thought on “Writing Exercise: If things had been different…

  1. Nice post Jennifer, this is an interesting writing technique. I am not much of a writer, but I always find myself searching for alternate possibilities in movies and TV shows. Most of the time I do it after I have already seen the ending. I thing of how the ending could have been better for the characters and how they could have fixed some of the mistakes that they made during the course of the story. Every time I know something bad is going to happen to a character in a story I cannot help but think of the alternate choices that they could make to avoid what is already going to happen.

    In the begging of your post you mentioned Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. There are a ton of books, and even a movie, based off that short story written as an alternate ending to the original. (http://www.amazon.com/Ray-Bradbury-Presents-Dinosaur-World/dp/0743486536)


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