by Lisa Bullard
My brother’s wedding rehearsal is in three hours, but my cousins and I take a jaunt from Houston to Galveston anyway. Then a cop car pulls us over. One cop stands behind our car, gun drawn; another leans menacingly into the window and grills us. Eventually, he admits that our car and the three of us match the descriptions of the perpetrators of a just-committed, serious crime.
I start playing the “What if? Game” in my head:
—What if we have to spend the night in a Texas jail?
—What if we have to spend the next thirty years in jail?
—What if my brother kills me for missing his wedding?
My over-developed imagination loves to think up outrageous possible outcomes like this. So when I started visiting schools, I was surprised by how many students told me they struggle to think up story ideas. I might have trouble translating my ideas into workable stories, but I never lack for the ideas themselves.
And then I realized: I needed to teach students the “What if? Game.” You simply take something predictable— tomorrow’s bus ride, soccer practice, dinner at Grandma’s—and you brainstorm a list of the funniest, scariest, or most life-altering alternatives as to how that event could turn out. Then you assign one of these imagined disasters to a character. Now you’ve got the start to a story.
Try it out. Prompt your students with, “What if when you walk into school tomorrow morning—.” Then set them to brainstorming: What if zombies are chasing your classmates? What if the U.S. president is sitting in your desk? What if the principal has turned into an alien?
And, yes, the cops let us go and we made it to the wedding. But what if instead…?