Monday, June 21, 2010

What if...?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine reminded me of one of the best notes a writer can get.

A fellow member of our writing group was having trouble with a particular point in his script, which was based on a real-life ransom/hostage standoff. I don't want to get too much into it, but at one point it was proposed that after the perps get away with the loot, we eventually see what they did with all the cash. The writer was quick to point out that it wasn't possible, as before the ransom was turned over to these criminals, the FBI recorded all the bills. Thus, even though the criminals were never captured they clearly couldn't have spent the money.

To which my friend offered to the writer, "What if they didn't record the serial numbers?"

Writer: "But they did!"

Friend: "How do we know? Because they told us? Maybe the FBI got caught with their pants down and they're lying to save their own hides! Maybe these guys have been dropping milions all over the place for years and haven't been caught!"

Well, you could have heard a pin drop as everyone in the group took that in. The writer and everyone else offering him notes had allowed themselves to be trapped inside a box. Every now and then, we need to remind ourselves that as writers we have potentially limitless options. It was such an incredibly easy fix to a major problem, and all it took was someone saying "What if...?"


  1. *All* fiction is essential a response to someone asking "What if?..."

  2. Sorry, no. A writer should never eliminate plot difficulties by making the villain - in this case, law enforcement - stupid.

    Some "what ifs" are better than others. Your friend's "what if" should involve a clever way that the kidnappers could leverage the bills without actually placing them in circulation.

  3. eamenes, but then law enforcement could hire a handsome yet mavericky consultant whose able to solve the crimes they're too incompetent to handle. The lead female investigator will fight her attraction to him and.. voila, we have a spin-off and new fall series.

    Agree that FBI stupidity is a dangerous choice. Sometimes it works, but too often results in stories where the pay-off feels unsatisfying and and contrived.