The number one question the writer of fiction asks when beginning a new work is “What if?” It’s a good question. But what about the other questions your English teacher taught you? What about Who? When? Where? Why?
Of course those questions are the nexus to the main question asked when beginning a work of fiction, but I think asking “What if?” is the beginning. For example: What if the captain of a ship decided that the cause of all his troubles lay in one single fish (albeit a mammal in this case.) I think that was what Herman Melville must have wondered as he began Moby Dick. The who came next, “Call me Ismael”, the where was a given, the why is what the novel explores, but the when isn’t important. Why? Because the book addresses the universality of the human condition and the when becomes “now, any time, whenever”.
Another example: What if the writer asked what if there was woman who wasn’t too happy in her marriage to a missionary and they had several children and were roughing it in Africa when a civil war broke out? That might be how the author of Poisonwood Bible began or it might be the same question I would have if I were going to write about my grandparents who were missionaries in Africa.
Every person has a novel inside. Because every person has asked at one time or another the What if question about something. Just the other day I was reading a local story about the man executed for burning his children to death in a house fire. The investigation into that incident was revisited after the execution and is presently ongoing with his guilt called into question instead of his innocence. Not just his guilt but everything else about the fire is being re-investigated. My thought was “What if he was innocent? What if he confessed to protect someone else? What if the fire wasn’t even arson?” There’s a non-fiction novel in those questions.
Whenever I confess to someone that I’m a writer, I often get this response. “I have a great idea for a novel. When can we get together? You can write it for me.” I somehow get out of this by saying that I’ve got too many ideas for my own novels to get them all written in a lifetime. But,” I add, “I do know a ghostwriter who would love to write your novel. That’s how she makes a good living.” I don’t use those words but in a kinder, gentler way the meaning is there. Interest is lost and the subject is changed.
We begin at the beginning with the initial important question when writing fiction but I end this with the caveat that there are so many elements to writing nothing can be boiled down to this or that one thing.