Let’s Talk About – How What If…? Was Not a Great Show But Is a Good Writing Exercise

Disclaimer: You don’t need to have watched Disney+’s What If…? to read this post. And, to be completely honest, it would be better for you if you didn’t watch What If…? anyway because it’s just honestly not worth your time. I’ve always been fairly critical of what Marvel Studios puts out and I have to honestly say that only one episode–“What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart?”–is legitimately good while the rest is probably the MCU’s most skippable content to date.

Regardless though, I will be spoiling parts of the show, because this post will briefly touch on its bad elements to highlight how not to do the writing exercise it accidentally presents. So if you don’t want any spoilers for What If…?, then this is your official warning to read no further.

~~~

I.

Am.

Still bedridden.

I realize I haven’t given updates on my leg in a while, but my kneecap is still loose. Months later.

I’ve seen three specialists now, and every visit yields a new prospective surgery I’ll need to correct what is now very clearly one of the shittiest legs ever. Long story short: the alignment of my knee is making it harder for my kneecap to heal. Or possibly my ligaments and tendons need to be repaired / replaced with surgery (one of the three–yes, three–operations I am going to need soon.

There are definite pluses to all of this, of course.

But also the side effect that I’m extremely bored.

I took over the world in Civ 6.

I’m close to the end of Metroid: Dread.

I already watched all of Star Wars: Visions.

And I watched . . . What If…?

And I know I took my time getting to it, but What If…? is what I want to talk about today.

Because holy shit was that show disappointing. I promise this isn’t going to be a hit-piece on that show, but I do need to talk about why that show is bad, so I can bring us around to the point of this post:

That, when done right, What If…? can be a great writing exercise.

But, first, let’s get to that realization the same way I did.

Starting with the confession that . . .

Man . . .
I Just Love Talking About Alternate Realities

If you haven’t been to this site before, I am a ridiculous fan of / believer in / supporter of the concept of alternate realities. I seriously think about them and talk about them all the time.

I’ve written a short story that focuses on them.

I often say things like, “In an alternate reality, there’s a version of me that’s a food scientist,” because, once upon a time, I did a way-too-elaborate presentation on cnidarians in college and my science professor offered me a job in his lab. A job which I didn’t take it for some stupid fucking reason.

I have often, when pressed for something to talk about with coworkers at my old job, resorted to throwing alternate reality hypotheticals at them. Questions like “If you went to an alternate reality and found out the version of you there was struggling financially, would you help them out?”

What I’m getting at here is that alternate realities are genuinely fascinating to me. They have incredible potential to make us question our own choices and the influence those choices have on who we are. For example, in the alternate reality where I wasn’t born with a fucked up leg, I’m probably in amazing shape. I definitely also wouldn’t know 99% of my current friends, because my life would’ve veered in a completely different direction when I was much, much younger (I honestly don’t know if I even would’ve had the same friends in grade school).

TL;DR: alternate realities are a cornucopia of possibilities.

And What If…? Totally Squanders That Potential

If you haven’t seen What If…?, it’s an animated series based on alternate realities within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It explores questions like, “What if all of the core Avengers were murdered before they became a team?” and, “What if Thor and Loki were never brothers?”

And then it’s like, “Thor would be a party boy.”

Me: “What? Wait . . . What?”

The Show: <throwing back a swig of beer so carelessly that it slops all over his shirt, and then wiping his mouth clean with the back of his hand> “If he din have his brother, Thor woulda been a big party man with a hammer.”

Me: “. . . Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?”

The Show: “He’d come down to earth and start a big party!

Me: “Okay. But, I mean, are there interesting consequences from that? Like, would Thor have become a shitty king? Would he have had more weird, space-centric adventures or just stood on Asgard forever?”

The Show: “Nah–it’d be like Ferris Thorler’s Day Off, I think. I dunno.”

Me: “. . . For fuck’s sake. Sure. Whatever. What about the other question?”

The Show: <grunts a> “Wha?” <as he eats spaghetti out of his hand>

Me: “The other theoretical: ‘What if all of the Avengers were murdered?'”

The Show: “Oh, right. They’d have to solve the mystery.”

Me: <blinks> “What?”

The Show: “They’d have to do it–have to figure out who done did it.”

Me: “Yeah, no shit. But how would that change the world???”

The Show: “Um . . . The Avengers would be dead?”

Me: “I know! But how would things be different!? What significant, unthinkable consequences would come out of that!?”

The Show: “Whoa . . . Dude . . . I can see you’re angry. Uh . . .” <lifts up his hand, offering> “Want some spaghetti?”

Yeah, I was . . . obviously a little disappointed.

But, if nothing else, this show did yield a really lively discussion with my writing group. About what the show did right (the animation was consistently beautiful) but mostly about what it did wrong. We tend to do that–critiquing pop culture content and brainstorming fixes for their missteps.

That discussion led me to create a question, on the fly, that I actually would’ve wanted answered: “What if Captain Marvel Never Left Earth at the End of Captain Marvel?” If I was part of the writing team for What If…?, that’s the first episode I would’ve suggested, because it’s the very first thing I wondered after seeing that movie for the first time.

But after the conversation, I wanted to make a joke to one of my friends that the episode I really wanted to see was “What if [the protagonist from their WIP] was evil?”

And then I immediately thought, Wait. What if one of the pivotal events in my novel never happened? What if someone else found the [spoiler]?

And, like a lightbulb flicking on, I realized . . .

What If…? Can Be a Really Fun Way
to Explore Your Own Stories

Obviously, this wouldn’t work for everyone; at its heart, writing fiction relies on the writer’s ability to make decisions and stick with them–to say, “Character A will be like this because that works with the theme I’ve decided on,” etc. So if you’re struggling to make decisions about your stories, maybe ignore this next part entirely.

For everyone else though . . . it’s weirdly fun to imagine how different your WIP would be if you changed one pivotal event or decision.

The one I stated above (the admittedly vague “What if someone else found [spoiler]?”) proposes a simple, extremely likely change to a single event in Memory that would completely change the story. Seriously, it would alter it in ways that I still haven’t grasped. The protagonists, Memory and Kole, would probably still come together, but they would’ve had a completely different quest that possibly would’ve been an elaborate heist? And the information yielded by that heist would not have had the same impact, so . . . would my villain have even been stopped?

It’s just wild to think about.

This is not me saying I’m going to rewrite Memory a third time. Hell no.

But wondering “What if . . . ?” does weirdly force me to explore character motivations in a way that I think is interesting.

It also naturally makes me see the world through a different lens that feels healthy for worldbuilding, if nothing else. The What If…? version of Memory explores a totally different portion of its world setting, and something about that feels especially rewarding to me.

Is it something I’d suggest for everyone? Not really. But it is a fun exercise in completely free plot-building.

And it can be a useful creative tool for the brainstorming phase of a new WIP. A way to test the parts of your plot that are absolutely pivotal and see the version of your story that you never would otherwise–a vehicle by which to explore an alternate version of the “Is this the most interesting time in your protagonist’s life?” question: “Is this the most interesting version of your protagonist’s life?” The goal of course isn’t to get lost considering alternate events for eternity, but to shake up your plot and force you to explore alternative events that might be better for the themes you’ve chosen.

For example, “What if Modis just stood in his cell?” . . . I know that means absolutely nothing to you–Modis is a character from the second item on my personal WIP queue), but holy shit, I just blew my own mind. Should Modis just stay in his cell and go to Primus? Would he get to Primus? Does that support the “Summer roadtrip” theme I have for that story more than him escaping?

Okay, sorry. I’m not even kidding–I have to go brainstorm a bit.

~~~

Thanks for reading. Especially if you got all the way to the end. This one wound up being way longer than I thought it would.

As always, I honestly appreciate Likes and Follows–Likes because they help me gauge what content to focus on and Follows because it helps me build my professional platform. The Like button is at the end of this post, but the Follow button is on the left sidebar on PC or the top-right drop-down menu on mobile.

That said, I appreciate you either way. Stay safe, take care, and seriously, fuck everybody else on your birthday. Like, go on vacation, but if you can’t, everything else that is not your favorite thing should fuck right off. Get that ice cream. Buy that booze. It is your day and anyone who’s like, “But I don’t want your favorite food for dinner,” needs to fuck off. Unless it’s also their birthday, in which case I have no answers–I have failed you. Goodnight!

Published by

Louis Santiago

I'm a fantasy writer based in New York. One of my short stories, "Aixa the Hexcaster," was published at Mirror Dance Fantasy. You can read it here: http://www.mirrordancefantasy.com/2016/09/aixa-hexcaster.html.

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