Way back when you were a little kid you probably played make-believe. Maybe you made up your own adventures involving a pillow-case-cape or a telescope made from an old paper towel tube. Some of us pretended we were the Masters of the Universe or best friends with Captain Caveman. Then there were kids who just let the dolls do all the playing while we were narrating the scene like tiny gods. Regardless of how you played, the fact remains that you did it. Your role may have changed from hero, to villain to omnipotent despot, but you always wove a story. If you did this alone, the question may not have been voiced, but I'm sure that you heard it (or said it) at least once if playing with at least one other person.
Forget abracadabra or please, those two words are among the most magical in any language. What if? There are variations on this question... "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" "What happens when...?" But it all comes down to a willingness to wonder, to posit a new reality. What if is a springboard. It can take us anywhere! It frees us from the rules and patterns of our life and lets us imagine a world where things are different. There is potency there and tremendous power.
Allowing ourselves the freedom to think and dream. That is where it all starts. This question leads us to do our own experiments. We grow up to be insatiably curious. Scientists exploring the Universe. Athletes pushing themselves to the next extreme. Artists playing with light and color...this is how it manifests in our lives. For writers, this is the breath of life. The question is the kernel.
From the seed comes a prompt, an idea. What if...a wizard hires himself out as a private detective? What if...a small group of rebels discovers the galactic empire's plans to destroy planets? What if...an orphan boy deals with his demons by fighting crime? What if...trickster gods sat down for a weekly game of poker?
Like our play sessions as children, we improvise on that idea. We play make believe with this idea, turning it around and looking at it through all sorts of lenses. A lot of writers' groups will break the community down into two factions: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are the ones who outline a story within an inch of its life and leave nothing to chance. Pantsers are the ones who just sit down and let the words come out of their fingers. At this point in the process, however, we are all pantsers. We are all of us children with a game to play, making up the rules as we go along. We take that idea and chew on it and wear it out until its threadbare.
The bones of a story begin to form.
What if...the trickster gods, having no need for money, play with the souls and lives of humans? More questions present themselves. Who are the gods? Who are the people? What sorts of friends do they keep? If the gods exist, what other creatures share the world? Where do they live?
We begin by creating a world. As in Genesis, we writers make the landscape--cities or faerie glades? during wartime or peace? space ships or shining armor? Each choice leads to an explosion of new choices and directions. Soon, people start walking around. Maybe they're mythical creatures--nymphs and satyrs, faeries or dragons--or aliens from a world far from ours. Then...they start talking to each other. They begin to live their own lives.
This is where stories come from. These little microcosms that evolve from a single-celled organism. A question. Asking the question and allowing yourself to play, to improvise, that is the first step to making a book.