The Power of “What If?” Premises in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Image: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s no doubt that a really good “what if?” scenario – a fascinating premise that envisions a society or world with a pivotal difference to our own – is a big hook for a speculative fiction book or film. An intriguing premise will almost always entice me to go see the film at the cinema, particularly a science fiction film.

On the whole, science fiction does these “what if” scenarios really well (especially dystopian sci-fi), and the concepts are memorable. I’m sure many people could guess which popular science fiction films the below scenarios refer to:
(hover over the link to see the title of the movie, or click to see the IMDb page)

However, fantasy also has its fair share of them:

  • “What if there was a lucrative horse race where people rode bloodthirsty magical water horses?” – Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater
  • “What if death had a mid life crisis and decided to hand over the reins to an apprentice?” – Mort, Terry Pratchett
  • “What if using magic came at a great personal cost?”* – Magic or Madness,  Justine Larbalestier
  • “What if there was a secret school for teenage witches and wizards?” – Harry Potter, J.K Rowling

*I could have been more specific with that premise but it would have involved spoilers!

Why in Fantasy and Sci-fi?

Of course, all fiction can have “what if?” premises, but they’re particularly rife in science fiction and fantasy. This is because these premises get to the core of what defines these genres. Take, for example, W.R. Irwin’s definition of fantasy:

“A story based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility”
— W.R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible

In its very nature, the genre centres on impossible magical things. Science fiction, on the other hand, shows us something that might be possible, through advances in science or technology, or the occurrence of certain events, but isn’t currently a reality.

So, at the heart of science fiction and fantasy is this fundamental ingredient: something that is not possible in our current world. That ingredient controls the story. So a large-scale “what if?” scenario is a natural building block in these genres – something that allows us to imagine a reality very different from our own.

Stories Without Core Premises

All of this said, many fantasy and science fiction novels aren’t easily distilled into one overarching “what if?” scenario that can be used to describe or promote the book. This is either because:

  • They have many smaller separate premises, rather than one pivotal premise from which all the others spring.
  • They simply don’t revolve around a key premise or concept, and their differentiating factor to our reality is something as basic as “what if magic existed?” or “what if intergalactic space travel were possible?” (which is so unspecific that it can’t really be used to differentiate a story from anything else in the genre).
  • The premise is so overdone that we no longer use it to differentiate a story, and rather focus on the way the story is told, e.g. “what if there were vampires/werewolves/angels among us?” or “what if you fell in love with a vampire/werewolf/angel?”

Not having a pivotal premise doesn’t mean a book or film is inferior. Many of my favourite novels, TV shows, and films would be difficult to pitch as simple “what if?” scenarios (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Fire, Hyperion, The Ill-Made Mute, Game of Thrones, The Fifth Element). So you’d be hard pressed to argue that a pivotal premise makes a story intrinsically any better or worse. However, books and films that can distill their stories into compelling one-sentence concepts have a distinct advantage.

Marketing

It’s much easier to market a story with an intriguing premise. One sentence that piques a person’s curiosity and tells them what the story is about is much more effective than a lengthy blurb.

It seems movies in particular often centre around these core premises. Maybe this is a product of the feature film form itself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s because a film with a simple premise is easier to pitch and market, both to studios and to audiences.

Image: The Host, Movie (2013)

The Host (2013)

An intriguing concept also has the power to fascinate and hold interest. The other day I was watching the movie The Host, based on a Stephanie Meyer novel, because I’m an Andrew Niccol fan and he directed it (actually, almost all Andrew Niccol films can be distilled into intriguing pivotal premises: e.g. The Truman Show, Gattaca, In Time). The film wasn’t perfect, and it didn’t get great reviews, but I liked it. I liked it largely because I found the concept fascinating (the idea of aliens taking over human bodies as ‘hosts’). I enjoyed seeing that idea explored. Maybe it’s because of my particular love of fantasy and science fiction, but I can often enjoy a science fiction or fantasy film that isn’t amazingly executed if it’s got a really intriguing concept.

Still, there are incredibly successful books and films that I’d argue don’t have simple premises (e.g. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dune), so it seems the central “what if?” concept is not a prerequisite for success.

The Value of a Core Premise

So, if you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction book, or making a film, do you need one overarching, pivotal, intriguing “what if?” premise to entice an audience?

Well, it’ll make it easier to pitch to people. It might mean more people buy it. It might give you a better chance of success with people like me, who love to see a good concept explored even if that exploration isn’t perfect. Ultimately, however, if you write an amazing book or make an amazing film, I’d argue that word of mouth marketing will still trump a tantalising premise. As much as I love an enticing “what if?” scenario, nothing beats a glowing recommendation from a trusted fellow spec fic reader.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of “What If?” Premises in Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. I think another variation of this is the cutesy “log lines” that go something like “Hunger Games Meets Mary Poppins.” But as someone who writes complicated novels, it’s something I often struggle with. “A woman is turned into a werewolf by her evil sorcerer ex, who grabs their kid, and she has to save her kid while pursued by an obsessed werewolf hunting priest” is quite a mouthful!

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    • Yes I struggle with it too! I can distill my story into one sentence, but that sentence is either a mouthful, or it doesn’t feel like it really encompasses what the book is about. I guess we can take solace in all those successful books and films that don’t have simple premises or cutesy loglines.

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