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Richard T. Kelly’s Writing Exercise for Faber Members

‘The most interesting situations’, wrote Stephen King, ‘can usually be expressed as a What-if question’.

Any written story you admire has ‘What if?’ at its core – as a premise or a launching point. (Writing teachers often speak of the ‘inciting incident’ as the thing that gets a story truly underway.) Playing a game of ‘What if?’ can be a simple portal into your imagination as a writer.

If you are stuck, then typing ‘What if . . .’ into a search engine will generate prompts of all kinds. (You could ask AI for a prompt, but remember that it will only predict what it thinks most other people would tell you, and you don’t want to be predictable.)

A ‘What if’ can seem absurd: not everyone would have the nerve to explore what might happen if a travelling salesman woke up one morning transformed into a beetle; but luckily for us, a writer once did just that. Once you start to flesh out a premise it can soon take on a surprising plausibility and substance.

So you might ask of your ‘What if’: Who is going to be the main character of your premise, and what are they like? Where do you imagine the action taking place, and in how many different sorts of settings? When is the action happening (now, years ago, a distant future)? Then, think about why you might want to take the story further. What would its compelling interest be to you, and therefore to a reader?

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