A few weeks ago, I found this absolutely fascinating American Youtube channel which is filled with videos about various alternate history scenarios (like “What if the cold war never ended?” or “What if Godzilla was real?“).
Whilst some of these alternate histories are quite predictable, some of them are extremely surprising – like this one about what would have happened if nuclear weapons had never been invented.
As you might suspect, these videos made me think about storytelling. You see, one of the great things about thinking about alternate histories is that it makes the familiar story of our own world history look like just one of many possible histories. One story out of many possible stories.
I’m not going to write a philosophical essay about parallel universes here, but thinking of the history we take for granted as being a “story” can not only be a very interesting way of looking at the world – it can also be a perfect way to get some quick creative inspiration too.
After all, if you need to come up with a quick idea for a short story or a comic, you just have to ask yourself the simple question of “what would happen if one thing was different?” and then just let your imagination go to work.
If you don’t have the time, resources or energy for historical research or anything like that, then you can just set your alternate history story in a fictional location of some kind or another, rather than in the real world. I mean, there’s already a fairly good tradition of this in the sci-fi genre, for starters…
But, in essence, I guess that alternate histories are also a perfect metaphor for fiction in general. I mean, literally every fictional story ever written has started with the idea “what if something was different in real life?“.
I mean, by it’s very nature, fiction has to change at least one thing about reality (eg: adding something to it or subtracting something from it).
Not only that, looking at alternate history scenarios can be a very useful educational tool for writers too. Why? Because a well-written and realistic alternate history scenario relies on a predictable and logical chain of events.
It relies on one thing (eg: a single change in our history) starting a domino-like chain of reactions and events that lead to a particular outcome. And, as you probably know, all of the best stories use this exact principle too.
All of the best stories seem compelling and/or plausible because anything that happens in them has a knock-on effect that leads to other events later in the story. In other words, the plot is (mostly at least) dictated by what has happened earlier in the story.
Even though the world of a story might be “unrealistic” or “fantastical”, the events of a good story will still progress in a logical and realistic way. And, well, looking at well-researched alternate history scenarios can be a good way of learning how to do this.
In addition to this, I guess that I’m also more interested in this topic than usual at the moment because I wrote this article on the 17th September -a day before Scotland votes whether to become an independent country or not.
I’m not Scottish (I’m from almost the exact opposite end of the UK ) but – at the time of writing this – I’m really curious about which way the vote will go and about which timeline we will end up following.
I mean, for all I know, my reference to “the UK” in the previous paragraph might sound hilariously outdated by now. Or it might not. At the time of writing, I have no clue.
The future is a mystery and only our imaginations can fill in the gaps. This, amongst many other reasons, is why alternate histories are so fascinating – because they give us a brief glimpse into how the future works.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂