The Simple Power of “What If?”

Every work of fiction, or damned near every one, can been seen as an answer to a “what if?” question. What if a family has to uproot their entire existence because of climate change? What if most of a small town’s children are killed in a tragic accident? What if a young attorney’s cushy law firm is a front for the mob? On and on it goes.

The power of “what if?” is given particularly free reign in speculative fiction, since the question doesn’t have to conform itself to the real world. Stepping outside reality to ask the question can still lead to powerful insights into the real world, however.

Last week while putting laundry away I stumbled into a Twilight Zone marathon on TV. The episode I landed on, “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”, that takes a preposterously simple “what if?” question and uses it to drill down about the human condition. The opening narration lays it out:

Sheriff Charlie Koch on the morning of an execution. As a matter of fact, it’s seven-thirty in the morning. Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness. But at this given moment, Sheriff Charlie Koch, a deputy named Pierce, a condemned man named Jagger, and a small, inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent. Such is usually the case—in the Twilight Zone.

In typical Twilight Zone fashion the supernatural event isn’t really the important part of the story. It’s how it throws everyone in the episode out of equilibrium and allows the filters of euphemism and manners to slip enough to see peoples’ true selves. Thus, not only do we have the deputy who’s certain (against the evidence) that Jagger is guilty, but we get the realization that Jagger is pretty much a douche, anyway. He may have been wronged, but that doesn’t make him right.

So the darkness lingers, until after the execution when we learn that it’s appearing all over the world, at locations like the Berlin Wall, Budapest, and a street in Dallas (keep in mind, the episode first aired four months after the Kennedy assassination). So, in less than half an hour, a simple question – “what if one morning the sun didn’t rise?” – leads us to, on the micro and macro scale, sober observations on human nature.

That’s the simple power of “what if?” when it comes to storytelling. It’s the prime mover, the thing that gets the ball rolling. It can upend the real world and give us a way to reflect on it all at the same time.

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