I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, and while enjoying it a thought occurred to me. We often say that Science Fiction is based on the phrase “What would happen if?” and then extrapolate out the story from there, but I think that’s wrong.
Listening to that excellent novel, it occurred to me that “What would happen if?” actually encourages writers to think in terms of events and plot. If I say “What would happen if Giant Bugs from Arcturus dropped from the sky?” You’ll get a picture in your head of giant purple bugs raining down from the sky to eat all of our Frosted Flakes. (Or maybe that’s just me…) Which is fine, and very dramatic, but also encourages the writer to think in terms of big visual elements based around the thing that’s different.
On the other hand, if I change the question to “What would it be like if?” then that encourages a complete different kind of thinking. Saying “What would it be like if?” forces the writer to think in terms of a person or character’s point of view instead of an abstract idea. This makes the writer begin to think the situation through, and reflect on how they or a character would feel going through that situation. This, in turn, produces a better and more relatable story because it’s being drawn out of subjective human experience rather than based on something more objective and less tangible.
Let’s look at a few examples so you can see what I mean. Think about how each pair produces a different idea in your head.
What would happen if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?
What would it be like if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?
What would happen if dogs could talk to people?
What would it be like if dogs could talk to people?
What would happen if we found a gate to the stars?
What would it be like if people found a gate to the stars?
See the difference? One is asking you to think outside yourself, and produces plot-based ideas and stories where you have to rethink how to base it around a character. The other makes you think in character terms right from the beginning, and then work out to view that situation from a personal perspective. And, when I think about it, I think most of the better Sci-Fi has actually been based on similar lines of thinking because it comes out from the human experience rather than being based on lofty ideas.
Just my take, anyways.