We writers spend much of our time crafting these new worlds lush with details and dense with characters and rules for the magic and the fiction of it all. These things are precious and necessary and are what make our stories unique. However, they aren't the only thing that make our stories unique.
The details of the worlds we create and the characters we craft fulfill the question What If.
What if we could travel through time?
What if we could cast spells against He Who Will Not Be Named?
What if we could transform into magical soldiers of justice and fight against evil?
Our imaginations are good for running wild. But what they may not often be good at is standing still. The what ifs are important. Alone, though, they are not enough.
What ifs make our stories unique, What is makes our story ours.
Traveling through time would be cool. But if you--yes, you--could travel through time, where would you go? I think when I ask people that question, they immediately go to a time that happened before they were born, and it's based on an idea of that time period or event that they've cultivated through books or movies or TV. There's nothing wrong with that. However, that time period or event is only the accessory to the time traveling wardrobe. The person wearing it, and why they're wearing it, is what the story is really about.
What Is is something that comes from real world experience. It's the nugget to our story, the reason why we're even writing the story in the first place. That experience is nonfiction. That experience is emotional and informs our behavior, perspective, and values. That experience is usually a dark one. An uncomfortable one. One that we've probably tried to bury deep into the corners of our minds to be forsaken and forgotten.
You can't escape the truth. You can't forget it. You can pretend to.
And books are pretend. So we can pretend to forget that What Is, right?
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I bet your favorite stories are the vulnerable, honest ones. Regardless if they are fiction or nonfiction, the What Is is naked. It's implicitly apparent. It's the core of the story, and without it, the wardrobe and the accessories would fall to the floor, held not by the gravity of What Is.
Back to the Future's What If is time travel with the DeLorean. It's What Is is about familial dysfunction as a result of years of self-defeat and depression.
Harry Potter's What If is attending a school with wizards and witches and learning magic. It's What Is is about physical and mental abuse and the long-term effects of childhood neglect.
Sailor Moon's What If is having the ability to transform into a magical heroine and fighting cosmic threats to the planet Earth. It's What Is is about sustaining values of loyalty and sacrifice in the face of greed, darkness, and feelings of socio-economic ineptitude (especially for young women).
So think about this: what is your story's what if and its what is? Are you and your characters courageous enough to reveal their vulnerabilities? To do so makes your story resonate in a much deeper, personal way, and is a key to telling a story with emotional impact.