What If? Writing Alternate Histories in Pop Culture




By imagining how things could turn out differently, we can sometimes reflect deeply on how things really are. 

There seem to be more and more video games, TV shows, movies, and other media about alternate histories—these are “what if?” style stories that imagine how changes in the past would affect the future. From comic book series like East of West to TV shows like Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (adapted from a Philip K. Dick story), many authors imagine how history would have turned out differently if important events hadn’t happened or had turned out differently. These authors use counterfactuals, a way of thinking that goes against known facts and events, to develop intriguing stories that are somewhat similar to our world but different in important ways.

Alternate histories, works of fiction, still tell us a lot about the world we live in. By imagining how things could turn out differently, we can sometimes reflect deeply on how things really are. Some things we take for granted—our government, the way our society works, or our everyday lives—might have been very different with some key changes in the past. In The Man in the High Castle, the Axis Powers won World War II and divided up America under fascist rule. In video games like Fallout, you have a first-person look at how the future might change as a result of changes in the past. Even comedies like the classic Back to the Future and Hot Tub Time Machine series find creative storytelling opportunities in alternate histories.




In this lesson, you will learn more about alternate histories and will use your solid grounding in historical fact to write creative historical fiction about recent events in pop culture and society. What happens when you follow the chain of consequences from one tiny change in the past to a new, exciting, and possibly frightening future?


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Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

This lesson will help students develop their creative thinking around telling the stories of history while still basing their creativity on known historical fact.

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Lesson tags: Eleventh, Featured, Film, History, Ninth, Social Studies, Television, Tenth, Video Games


David Cooper Moore is a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and media educator. He has contributed curriculum, video resources, and scholarship to various schools, non-profits, academic centers, and media companies. He is a co-author of the book Discovering Media Literacy, a teacher's guide to elementary and middle-level digital and media literacy education. You can learn more about his work online and find him on Twitter at @dcoopermoore.