Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of "If"

If — two letters, one little puff of breath between tongue and teeth—ranks high among language's most powerful and mysterious words: little if can build all the castles in Spain. The dictionary calls if a conjunction meaning "supposing that"; I call if a trigger word, one that signals and sets off the extraordinary mental process we call imagination.

We wake up in the morning, wash, dress, eat, and go about our lives as best we can, immersed in whatever factual reality faces us on that particular day. Then, in response to some inner or outer event, we think, "Well, if…" What follows that if could be anything under the sun—"If my boss were only a nice guy..," "God, if Mom and Dad come for the holidays…"—but by the simple act of thinking "If…" we open up a door to dozens of possible alternative worlds, worlds both like and unlike mundane daily life, worlds that we can see in detail, that we can manipulate and change to suit our changing fancies. How does if work its magic? I’ll let linguists, psychologists, and neurologists answer that. All I know is: if works.

If, of course, stands at the heart of fiction, writing that describes imaginary life. Every novel or short story is a chain of ifs that the writer answers with a matching chain of thens: "What would happen if a wealthy Russian woman in the late 19th century fell out of love with her stern husband and in love with a dashing young man-about-town. Would the husband be cruel? Would the lover be true? Would the woman be happy?"

Writers commonly use four if's to create fiction’s imaginary life: "What if these people lived?" "What if this place existed?" "What if the impossible were possible?" and "What if we knew everything?"

The first if gives birth to the imaginary characters whose lives fiction relates. Fiction’s quasi-people are among the most superb of human inventions. Each generation creates its own, and the most vital live through succeeding generations until they float deathlessly in the mind of mankind, a vast population of ghostly but beloved figures—Dickens' Miss Havisham for one:

… she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on—the other was on the table near her hand—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

Writers use "What if this place existed?" less universally, their characters often walking well-known streets in real cities. They nearly always, however, invent details of such locales, specific houses and interiors, and they frequently coalesce the features of many similar real places into one fictional place. In The Shining Stephen King invents the Overlook Hotel both as an imaginary place and as an imaginary character, the book's arch-villain who dies by fire:

The furnace exploded, shattering the basement's roofbeams, sending them crashing down like the bones of a dinosaur. The gasjet which had fed the furnace, unstoppered now, rose up in a bellowing pylon of flame through the riven floor of the lobby. The carpeting on the stair risers caught, racing up to the first floor level as if to tell dreadful good news. A fusillade of explosions ripped the place....Flame belched out of the Overlook's five chimneys at the breaking clouds.
(No! Mustn't! Mustn't MUSTN'T!)
It shrieked; it shrieked but now it was voiceless and it was only screaming panic and doom and damnation in its own ear...

To make the Overlook a character, King uses the third if, "What if the impossible were possible?" Imagination can run riot with this if of fantasy. Homer uses it to describe the Cyclops, a race of one-eyed giants; H.G. Wells to build a machine that can travel backward and forward in time, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to mine a diamond as big as the Ritz. Realists eschew the if of fantasy, agreeing with Cervantes that "the more truthful a book appears, the better it is as fiction, and the more probable and possible it is, the more it captivates."

Yet the age-old popularity of fairy tales is proof enough of this if's magic charm. Writers of fantasy do their best to convince readers that the impossible may be possible after all. E.B. White, for example, bases his delightful Charlotte's Web on "if animals could talk like humans." Eight-year old Fern Arable regularly eavesdrops on their conversations sitting on a milking stool by the pigsty. Her mother thinks this is nonsense and asks the family doctor, "Dr. Dorian, do you believe animals talk?"

"I never heard one say anything," he replied. "But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn't catch the remark because I wasn't paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman's barn talk, I'm quite ready to believe her."

The fourth if, "What if we knew everything?", creates what some critics call the "omniscient author," but what I call moveable point of view. Writers use the other ifs to create characters and the worlds they inhabit; this if creates a fluid vantage point from which we view that world. When a writer uses moveable point of view well, writer and reader, delightfully invisible, step together into a bubble-like space capsule that whisks us about, taking us anywhere we need to go to follow the unfolding story. Floating utterly unseen by the characters, we watch them when they hide:

At last when the unknown was mounting to the fourth floor, [Raskolnikov] suddenly started, and succeeded in slipping neatly and quickly back into the flat and closing the door behind him. Then he took the hook and softly, noiselessly, fixed it in the catch. Instinct helped him. When he had done this, he crouched holding his breath, by the door. The unknown visitor was by now also at the door. They were now standing opposite one another, as he had just before been standing with the old woman, when the door divided them and he was listening. —Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

and slip into their minds to eavesdrop on their unspoken thoughts:

...Emma sat down to think and be miserable. It was a wretched business indeed. Such an overthrow of everything she had been wishing for. Such a development of everything most unwelcome. Such a blow for Harriet! That was the worst of all....
 "If I had not persuaded Harriet into liking the man, I could have borne anything. He might have doubled his presumption to me—but poor Harriet!" —Jane Austen,  Emma

One closing note: much as readers love the freedom if bestows, they tend not to like ifs piled on ifs piled on ifs. Use a few ifs to invent your characters and where they live, maybe use a few more to make them vampires visiting Earth from Mars, but then don’t use more ifs to turn your Martian bloodsuckers purple on alternate Tuesdays or to show them reading Shakespeare backwards in Chinese. "No," your readers will say, "we enjoy the free flights we take on your ifs, but please keep one toe at least planted on the terra firm of daily life—if, that is, you want us to read you!"

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 26th 2012, 2:32 AM
Comment by: Margaret (Perth Australia)
Michael, your face matches your wit,if I'm not mistaken.
Monday March 26th 2012, 2:35 PM
Comment by: James M.
Fine--but the sound of "if" is not made between the tongue and the teeth, but between the lower lip and the upper teeth.
Monday March 26th 2012, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Wonderful, thank you!
Monday March 26th 2012, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I tried analyzing how the "if" sound is made, but James is right. It's not so easy just hearing the sound of words and ignoring the meaning!
Tuesday March 27th 2012, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
One of my high school teachers told the class, when I said "if", "'If', the smallest word with the biggest meaning". Thanks Michael.
Wednesday March 28th 2012, 2:33 PM
Comment by: doug L. (reston, VA)

Everyone on this thread knows of your wonderful writing talent, and like me, look forward to your monthly essay.

I'm running out of superlatives to describe your work. To imagine that there was a time that preceeded any one of your essays where the sheet of paper is blank is difficult for me.

I want to go on record to request that the "Power of If" essay be an annual one. Next year's essay could simply and unabashedly be called "Power of If, 2013 Edition". Although I'm not religious, I like the thought of it occurring right around Easter.

What I like best about franchising the "If" theme is that we (read: your grateful base of readers) will get to see four, five or six magnificent examples of time-tested highlights from the luminaries of literary fiction. The "If" highlights you've presented in the instant essay are just sublime.

Keep charging, Michael! You rock!

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