Hello again! Last month I did my first back-to-basics sort of entry (“The Three Foci“). So today I’m going to talk about a fairly basic but helpful exercise you can do to keep your story on track as you write it. Even if you’ve already started in on your story you might find it helpful to work through it.
You might recognize these questions as those used by journalists. They are commonly known as the Five Ws (although there are actually six questions…). We can use them for our storytelling purposes, though, since they get to heart of the matter quickly and efficiently. And besides, journalism is a form of storytelling; it just uses the real world as its setting.
Where? When? (Setting)
These two questions define your setting. How “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” you answer them depend on the scope of your story.
If you’re telling a save-the-world story, for example, the Where might encompass the entire world, or at least most of a continent. If you’re creating a world from scratch, it’s going to take a while to answer this one fully. Of course, worldbuilding is its own subject, and an extensive one at that (our friend Geoff also blogs about it), but if you already have the world all created you can just answer this question as to the specific areas of that world you’re focused on. For example, I have a great deal of the world of Novagallia (in the Royal Archivist universe) all figured out, but were I to do this exercise for my first story set there I would have narrowed down the Where to “NE Sakosta, within the mansion of the Fraser family.” That Sakosta is on Novagallia, which is itself within the Ingressa, is not as important.
The When should only be specific if you’re setting your story on Earth or on a world your audience is already familiar with. Defining the When of your story as a specific year in a calendar you’ve created isn’t helpful for your audience unless you’ve established that year earlier. For example, saying your story happens in 1152 of the Calendar of the Empire of Somesuch is completely meaningless unless those enjoying your story know what any of that means. More helpfully, you’d want to set the specific time in relation to something that happens in your story. So, for instance, you might say your story takes place five years after the old Emperor of Somesuch died, and in the time the story takes place a succession war continues unabated. It might also help you and your audience if you can answer this question in a more general sense tied in with the technology and social norms of a particular time in Earth’s history. If the Empire of Somesuch most resembles 12th-century Mississippian culture (rather than 15th-century), then note that in your answer.
Who? Why? (Character)
Answering these questions define your characters.
So, the Who is pretty obvious, right? Who are the characters of your story? Be specific; name names, even if they are just placeholder names.
The Why is a little harder but just as important–maybe more so. Why them? Why your characters and not someone else? Why are your characters involved in the plot? Why do they act the way they do? React the way they do? Why don’t your characters just curl up in a ball and hope someone else takes care of the problem for them? This is very much a part of who your characters are and answering the Whys of their involvement in the plot helps you answer all the relevant questions of Who they are.
What? How? (Plot)
Knowing what happens and how it occurs helps you fill out your plot.
The basic question of “What happens?” is, really, an outline of your plot. It’s pretty much that simple. Answering this question defines your plot from beginning to end, but it doesn’t help connect the dots.
Answering How is the connector. Just knowing What happens doesn’t give you a story, you need to know How. How do the characters become involved? How do they overcome their first obstacle? Their second? All of them? How do they move the plot toward its conclusion? If What is the skeleton of your story, How is the musculature that holds it together and moves it around.
Not the Only Way
There are all kinds of ways of outlining and putting together your story. This is just one of them. If you try out this method let me know. I’d love to see how you use it.