Jane Ayres Asks What if?

Food for thought from my fellow blogging friend Jane Ayres which I found very interesting considering my WIP is all about the consequences of choices 😉

What if? What then? Problem solving for writers.

Writers are constantly asking “What if?” And after we have answered this question, it then follows, “What then?” This got me thinking about the choices we make, as human beings and as writers. One aspect of writing fiction that I love is that of problem solving. We create a situation for our characters (or vice versa) and as the narrative unfolds, we have to work out how to develop and resolve subsequent events. There will be questions to pose and answer and obstacles to navigate before a satisfactory conclusion is reached. We create a series of problems which we then have to solve.

I’ve been reading a wonderful collection of essays by journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron (who sadly passed away last year) called I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman and one of the essays, The Story of my Life in 3500 Words or Less, relates a story told by film director Mike Nichols, which he uses to make a point about a conversation they have.
I’m going to do my own version of the story (there will be many versions), but with the same outcome as the original. At the end is a question.

My version of the story:
A couple live in a remote location. The husband goes off to work and his wife takes a bus journey to the nearest town to see her secret lover. (Her husband has the car). After her illicit assignation, it’s late and she misses the last bus home. Desperate to get back before her husband discovers her gone, she pleads with a taxi driver to take her home. Exploiting the situation he demands triple the normal fare, which she doesn’t have. So she starts to walk home and is attacked and killed by a stranger.

The question is, whose fault is it? Who is responsible for her death? The woman, her husband, her lover, the taxi driver or the killer? All of these? None of these?
It’s not a trick question and there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone will respond differently. When I first saw this, my answer was immediate, my judgement instant. Then I began to think about the way choices lead to consequences. How much more information, if any, do we need to consider our response? The process of answering these questions (and the reasons we give for our answers) is both a valuable springboard for our own creative narratives, and offers an insight into how and why we engage with characters in fiction.

If you get stuck writing your short story or novel, go back and see what would have happened if your character/s had made different choices. Which in turn might change another aspect of the story. Why are they motivated to behave the way they do? What would you do if you were them? If the story then ends differently, would it have started at a different place or point in time?
Is that why we write? Because we can’t help asking questions? What if we stopped exercising our imaginations? What then?

Footnote: I’m curious – who do you think was to blame for the woman’s untimely end? Would the response change if the characters and situations of the husband and wife had been reversed?

Jane’s recent e-book, Coming Home, is available from Amazon.co.uk and .com with all author royalties going to the charity Cats Protection.


25 thoughts on “Jane Ayres Asks What if?

  1. Now that has got me thinking…much like the movie Sliding Doors – one small diversion causes a multitude of variations. The series of events in story when taken in isolation would not have ended the same way. Each twist collectively directed her to her violent death. However, if only one twist had occurred the tale would have had many different endings….of would it? Was she supposed to die – was it her time? I may have to write this out using each twist! That’ll keep me out of mischief.


    • Hi Mandy – I love the film Sliding Doors and often discuss it in my writing workshops as I think it is a great tool for writers, especially when stuck.
      Great idea to write different versions of the story!


  2. Maybe it is just life, no ones direct fault. Problems with the marriage, him or her, fact she was late getting home, lover or her, taxi driver, him or her. Killer? What was the back ground behind their thinking? So maybe the answer is her, she just made bad choices that day. 🙂 hey, but what would I know? I’m not a writer lol 😉 xxx


  3. A terrific interview, Vikki. Jane Ayers says it all and so succinctly. Good advice re: the consequences of choices for every character. For me, what if, are two of the most used words in my (writing) thought process. What if, makes for exciting characters and storylines – and exiting reading. Very helpful and informative interview. x


  4. I think I must be a writer. You ask whose fault it was that the woman was killed..?

    My answer: the bus driver, because he should have known to wait for her – frequent a passenger as she was! Or another woman, the one the killer was really waiting for who didn’t show (for any number of reasons – perhaps she managed to catch the bus at the last second?!). Or even the killer’s mother, who criticised him so much that he became obsessed with killing women so that he could imagine killing his critical mother over and over again!

    So, I guess I must be a writer. I like the example though, it made me think. Good post Vikki.
    Take Care, Cat x


  5. Vikki, first this is a she’devil of a conundrum. All of the above? Fate? Was it really her time to die? Or you can get very I Ching on the whole thing and say … she started a chain reaction when she decided to have an affair instead of confronting her husband or getting a divorce. The accumulation of bad things leads to tragic ends. Can’t blame the killer because he was fated to kill.

    And why don’t we blame the lover? She could have gone back to him and let him take her home in time … or stayed in town and called the husband that she was shopping and missed the last bus? Isn’t it wonderful to think “what if” for each of the fates we face? One could say she met her proper ending like the chicken who crossed the road and was smashed by a speeding truck 🙂 Why didn’t the chicken look both ways?

    You hit a cord with Nora. A comic genius. Mike Nichols as well. Look up Gail Parent, a talented TV writer I enjoy.


  6. Vikki, are you interested in joining in on a blog tag where you name 5 of your favourite books of all time / now / whenever, and then tag 5 more blogers? Leave me a note here or on my blog to let me know! I won’t be posting mine until middle to end of next week. xxx


  7. my brain was not functioning properly when I first read the title I saw the surname and somewere a little voice in my head shouted Pam and started off making up rhymes is a slightly silly accent, when I finally gave my head a shake I realised that my star sign helps me with this as being a Libran I constantly weight up the pros and cons and every possible scenerio for everything and hence am useless at actually making a decision


  8. The killer is the only person responsible for her death. Everyone, except the husband, is guilty of something though.

    Hmm, I do seem to see things very clear cut for a fiction writer, don’t I?


    • I agree, Patsy, about the killer, and I instantly responded the same way. However, I would want more information about the couple’s relationship before making a judgement about the husband, as we don’t know how he treated her.


  9. Well Vikki, I have a few moments to spare so wrote three versions of the What If:

    Version One : Adele breaths in his scent as the bus bumps along the road. She closes her eyes to recall every detail of their afternoon, full of hot passion. She will shower before James comes home from work but for now she can imagine Jake’s hands and lips upon her naked body. The bus jerks to a halt at Adele’s stop. As she steps onto the road she sees James’ car in their driveway. Why is he home so early? Where can she say she has been? Can she manage to get upstairs to the bathroom before he sees her? Jake’s cologne will be a dead giveaway as to her whereabouts.

    Version Two: “Shit, I’ve missed it.” Adele looks around the bus station and spies the taxi rank. She’ll have to hope one of them will take her home and quick. “Hi, Can you take me to High Cross?” “High Cross, love? That’s a bit of a long drive. I’m off in twenty minutes.” “Please, I really need to get home and I missed the last bus.” “Well, how about 125 and I’ll phone the missus that I’ll be late?” “How much? That’s a lot more than usual.” “Well I’m the last driver for tonight and as I said, I’m off in twenty, well now fifteen minutes.” “Well alright then but can you hurry?” Adele sits in the back seat nervously biting her thumb nail. She hasn’t got enough money and hopes the driver will be understanding when he drops her off. Maybe she can promise to come back tomorrow with the difference? As the car broaches the crest of the hill Adele’s heart sinks. The lights are on at home. How will she explain her absence to James?

    Version Three: “That’s daylight robbery, mate, I’m not paying that.” “Suit yourself, love. It’s extra after ten o’clock.” Adele swears under her breath and walks away from the taxi rank. She shivers, her light jacket is no protection from the night air. There’s nothing for it but to walk the three miles home. It will give her enough time to think up an excuse for her absence to James. Damn cell phone died over an hour ago. In her distracted mood she doesn’t see the shadow as the taxi’s headlights sweep along the wall. He’s been waiting for an opportunity all night. Bus stations are a favorite haunt. Perfect for stranded passengers. He waits for her to walk into the darkness. His soft soled shoes don’t make a sound. His next victim is oblivious to her fate.

    Hope you like them


  10. Pingback: My response to What If? | Mandyevebarnett's Blog

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