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Three Magic Phrases for a Writer

by Richard Mabry

Early in my road to writing, author and teacher Alton Gansky taught me to ask a magic question: “What if?” One of his books began when he noted the presence of a military installation in a deserted location and asked himself, “What if that base suddenly disappeared?” The result was an excellent book. And it began with one question: What if?

I still recall my frustration with author and editor Jeff Gerke when I sat with him at a writing conference and showed him the outline of my novel. Each time I described a turn of the story, he came back with, “So what?” Finally, it came through to me. I couldn’t just write about everyday stuff. The reader had to be invested in what happened, had to know that if certain things did or did not take place, there would be consequences. Thus, I learned to ask myself, “So what?”

I learned my last question from one of my first editors, Barbara Scott. As a seat-of-the-pants writer, I generally start with a one-sentence story line. Then follow an attention-getting opening and a knockout closing (thanks, James Scott Bell, for teaching me this). But after I have those I have to populate the story with characters about whom the reader cares. They must be so real that, should misfortune befall one of them or death overtake them, the reader will be sad. So, as I develop each character, I must ask myself, “Would a reader care about this person?”

That’s it. Those are my three magic questions. You may have magic questions of your own, and if you do, I’d love to hear them. Now it’s time to stop reading and get to writing. Just don’t forget to ask yourself three questions as you write: “What if?” and “So what?” and “Why do I care?”

MabryRichard Mabry is a retired physician, past Vice President of the American Christian Fiction Writers, and author of “medical suspense with heart.” His novels have been a semifinalist for International Thriller Writers’ debut novel, finalists for the Carol Award and Romantic Times’ Reader’s Choice Award, and winner of the Selah Award. His latest, Critical Condition, is his seventh published novel. You can follow Richard on his blog, on Twitter, and his Facebook fan page.

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5 Responses to Three Magic Phrases for a Writer

  1. I always start brainstorming with “what if”. Then I ask why? And keep going until I have the answers. Great 3 questions!

  2. DiAnn Mills says:

    How can my hero or heroine be different from everything I’ve written or read – do the backstory.

    Great post, Richard!

  3. Pat and DiAnn, thanks for pertinent comments and suggestions. Appreciate your stopping by.

  4. Mary Hawkins says:

    Thank you, Richard. Years ago I was given this by another writer -sorry, can’t remember who now. I’ve had these reminders listed on my cork board ever since. When thinking about my characters and their stories I still need these keywords to remind me:-
    Who… What… When… How… Because… What if?… Who cares? Now I’m adding that “So what?”

  5. Pingback: What If? | allbettsareoff