I understand the urge for anyone to ask that question of writers–particularly if that writer has done something that’s fantastical–science fiction, fantasy, some types of action stories, magical realism… because those types of stories push the boundaries of the known. The writer of any of these types of fiction (especially if they’re successful), probably married two or more “what if?” thoughts together and then leapfrogged somehow from there onto something as-yet-unthought-of. It’s fascinating when we look from the outside in to works like this that we are amazed, and wonder how they got from point A (where we tend to live) all the way to that double-helix ZZ. It’s not an everyday occurrence, and it’s almost mystical.
Maybe it is mystical. Magic. It can feel that way sometimes, when you’re on the other side of that observation, the one doing the creating.
Ideas aren’t hard to come by, though. We all have them. What writers do, though, that may be different from everyone else is ask, “What if?” — using that idea and applying it to a character. We ask “what if?” about dozens of things; a habit so ingrained, we may not recognize formally that that’s the process we’re using at all, by the time we’re grown and actually committing things to paper. But “what if?” isn’t enough for a story to take place… and that’s the crucial thing that almost never gets touched on by those asking… the “why does this matter?” part of the equation.
“Why does it matter?” creates stakes. It creates the world in which something is at risk, and when something is at risk, we have the beginnings of a story.
The last fundamental part of the tripod that holds a story together is “who does this matter to?” You can have the most fantastic idea in the world–from grand to subtle–and you can grasp why it matters only in context of who it matters to… the characters of the story. Why it matters to them is what will hook the reader into the story, and pull them all the way along to the end.
It’s that simple, really. And that difficult.
I fear that what most people are really asking, underneath the surface, is “how did you know that idea would work, that that story would sell and make you money?” It’s that question that makes most writers weep, at least a little inside, in the privacy of their own doubts, because mostly, we don’t know. We can only hope that we’ve done the job we set out to do when that first “what if?” of the idea knocked on our brain and said pay attention.