Sunday 22 April 2018

Writing with the Imp, by Dan Metcalf

Many stories are sparked by a simple but thought-provoking phrase: ‘What if...’

What if there was a competition where children had to kill each other? (Hunger Games)
What if a small, timid hero was tasked with the most important adventure ever; to save the world? (The Lord of the Rings)
What if clones were bred in order to harvest their organs? (Never Let Me Go)

And this is often the advice which creative writing tutors give to hungry students in search of a ‘quick fix’. If you wonder ‘what if’, then your story will be laid out in front of you.

As a writer of some years now, I have come to believe that this is only half the truth. Because while writers always need that imp on their shoulders prompting ‘What if? What if?’, they will also need another imp on the other shoulder, poking and prodding and cajolling, saying ‘Then what?’.

'The Imp of the Perverse' from the short story by Edgar Allen Poe, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1935.

An example might be Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. “What if,” said Mr Pullman to himself, one windy Oxfordshire night, “What if there was a world like ours, but where people had their souls on the outside of their body?” And thus the concept of daemons was born. A fine concept, I think we can all agree, but left to a less enquiring mind, that’s where the idea may have been left; as a concept. It requires a writer and that cheeky imp on the shoulder prompting ‘Then what? Then what?’ to get a full story out of it.

IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Well, then there might be an adventurous young girl who has to battle an evil cabal of church elders.
IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Um...maybe a boy from our world works out how to cut a hole between the two worlds?
IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Then they team up to kill God!
IMP: Oh, um, really? I thought this was a kid’s book?

And so on. You get the idea.

My own ‘What if’ moment for my latest book had already been done for me:

What if humans could grow dinosaurs from their DNA?’

That’s the concept Michael Crichton came up with nearly 30 years ago, and his Jurassic Park book laid the foundation for the film franchise that still rakes in the big bucks today; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is released this June. So in Crichton’s/ Spielburg’s world, the dinosaurs are brought back in the name of entertainment. When I wanted to write a series of children’s adventures, I started with the same concept as Jurassic Park, but the responses to my imp’s ‘Then what?’ took the world in a different direction:

DAN: What if humans could grow dinosaurs from their DNA?
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Well, then they would breed them for war; make them into weapons.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: The dinosaurs would be bred to be sentient. They can talk and think.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Then the dinosaurs start to wonder why they are being used as instruments of war. They rebel.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Then they start the Dino Wars! Humans vs Dinosaurs in the future! With laser guns!
IMP: Okay, calm down Dan.
DAN: Then after the war, humanity is nearly extinct! The dinosaurs have re-inhabited the Earth!
IMP: Um…
DAN: And our hero, a kid from a peaceful settlement, has to try and save the world by gathering together four precious power-giving crystals!
IMP: Well, I’ll be off then. You clearly don’t need me around here…

And lo! DINO WARS was born. The adventure is set in a far-flung future and book one sees Adam Caine discover the trial he is about to endure, and discover a city full of gun-toting velociraptors. In all honesty, writing this series of books is the best fun I have had in ages. And it was all down to two little words…

‘Then what?’


Dan Metcalf is the author of Dino Wars: Rise of the Raptors, which is published by Maverick Arts Publishing on the 28th April 2018. For more details and to order your copy, head on over to


Sue Bursztynski said...

Great post, Dan!

Have you read Harry Harrison’s Eden trilogy? In that series, dinosaurs were never wiped out, because that comet never struck. So the smaller ones have become intelligent and developed a technology based on biology, eg their guns are lizards genetically engineered to stiffen when they mature, and you can put your “bullets” in. You do have to feed them... And humans exist as well, but are more primitive. Not children’s books, though.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Dan! May be "Then whatting?" later today.

Dan Metcalf said...

Awesome! Not come across that, no. Will hunt it down...

Dan Metcalf said...

Thanks Penny 😁

Anne Booth said...

I like these questions - 'what if?' and 'then what?' - I will keep asking them the next time I am plotting!