When I began writing novels, I reached out to a writing coach named Gary Provost. Gary, who has since passed away, had a remarkable talent for simplifying the process of creating storylines. It was partly because of his excellent guidance that I began my Frank Clevenger series of mysteries.

Gary shared with me a simple tool to come up with the theme of a short story, novel or screenplay. It was this two-word question: What if?

I think Gary’s two-word question is a great way to jump-start creative work of many kinds. Certainly, it works for works of fiction:

What if an unknown fighter from Philadelphia suddenly got a shot at the Heavyweight Championship? (Rocky)

What if an alien got left behind on earth and was discovered and housed by the kids who found him? (ET)

What if robots began to have human feelings, with potentially disastrous consequences for humankind? (I, Robot)

If you are feeling a bit blocked when trying to think up a story worthy of a work of fiction, try using the “What if?” question yourself. Let your mind wander. What if you opened the door to your home and everyone in it seemed to be a stranger? What if a couple who were down on their luck stumbled upon what seemed like the perfect plan to rob a bank, tucked away in their attic by the wife’s great grandfather? What if Abraham Lincoln reappeared on the earth and sought the Presidency?

Okay, I happened to just come up with those and fire them off, but you get the idea. With a few hours of blue skying, you can probably come up with several of your own. You certainly don’t need to commit to anything at first. The whole idea is to make “What if?” a recurring theme in your creative imagination.

Of course, the “What if?” question doesn’t need to apply only to fictional projects or entertainment projects. It’s a great question to use to get your mind in the space to think up potential inventions, new business ideas or ways to reengineer your current business.

“What if?” is the opposite of “What’s the sense?” It’s an inherently optimistic platform from which to envision new horizon. It’s a question that invites your imagination to come out to play. There are no wrong or dumb or outlandish answers to the “What if?” question. Because the question is so open-ended and so inviting of bold ideas that all thoughts are welcome. The more the better. It might take dozens of ideas you don’t ultimately embrace to come up with the one that you do. But that’s still lightning fast.

Need a little more prompting? Try these:

What if I woke up tomorrow and . . . ?

What if I opened the window of my office and . . .?

What if I was looking at my arm and . . .?

What if the phone rang, I picked it up and . . . ?

What if I was just walking through the mall and . . .?

I could go on and on and on. So can you. Trust me. And that’s the point. Your creative imagination is infinite. Sometimes it just needs a jump start.

Keith Ablow, MD

Posted: November 22, 2019 in: Business, Professional Development, Writing

4 Responses

  1. Rebecca says:

    I did this without even knowing it and ended up owning a home on Lake Wateree!
    My brain said, “What if I go on Zillow and circle SC and put in all the things I’d want (not necessarily be able to afford).
    Daydream: 4BR 3BA Waterfront, Garage, 2+ Acres.
    Boom! God put this house for half of what it should’ve been, right in front of me. 3.8 Acres, New floating dock, 2 Car Garage, 2 wired out buildings, (one is being converted to a guest cottage) and a pool table and fire place. We ended up buying it furnished and also bought a used pontoon boat and golf cart!
    God did all this for my mom. We were the conduits and share her blessing as she lives there full time and we visit almost every weekend!
    Then I said, “what if I open a booth/store in Camden, SC at Broad Street Treasures and sell my things to help clean out our main home in preparation to sell in a few years for retirement and perm move to the lake?” We’ll see! I did that too! 😊

  2. Kristel says:

    We need more Frank Clevenger novels. I could read those forever. You should do an online inspiration xourse. Im a writer

  3. Keith Ablow says:

    Hi, Kristel:

    Thank you for the kind words about Frank Clevenger. The idea of creating an online inspiration course is a good one. I’ll consider that, for sure.


  4. Keith Ablow says:


    The stories you share about inspiration/imagination fueling great new realities make all the sense in the world to me. Taking that first step to actualize a dream begins turning the dream into a plan. Plans are imbued with intention, and, with enough intention, anything can be achieved.