How are you on the 5 W’s?
You know: “who, what, when, where, why”? Those 5 W’s. The ones your high school English teacher badgered you about.
Maybe you’ve pushed them aside and not thought about them since high school. But it’s time to dust them off and see how they can help you create a tighter, more fascinating story.
Every journalist knows that if they haven’t answered these 5 W questions in the very beginning. So should every story writer.
Open up any newspaper in the world and you’ll see how those 5 W’s have been worked into the first paragraph – known as the “lede.” Here’s a short news item from Reuters today:
An explosion at a gas filling station in Ghana's capital killed at least 78 people, many of whom had sought shelter there due to torrential rain, a spokesman for the national fire brigade told JOYFM radio on Thursday.
Let’s take a look at those 5 W’s.
- Who’s it about? 78 people who were killed, and one fire brigade spokesman.
- What happened? An explosion.
- When? Today, Thursday June 4 (or maybe it happened yesterday).
- Where? Accra, the capital of Ghana.
- Why? The people were in the gas station to seek shelter from the rain. The article doesn't given a reason for the explosion itself, but the next paragraph says it may be connected to the rain as well.
Oh, and by the way, I know nothing about Ghana. That’s another thing journalists realize: if they’re doing their job right, they can make you feel entranced, utterly fascinated, by anything. They can make you care.
Now let’s look at the beginning of a children’s book.Unlike a 2-paragraph news article, you have a little more space to establish those 5 W’s. But don’t take too long. Make sure your reader is oriented right away, in the first chapter, or – in a 32-page picture book – within the first couple of pages.
You already know I love Roald Dahl, so let’s take a look at one of his most beloved stories: Matilda.
Illustrator Quentin Blake helpfully fills in the “Who” right away with a few quick sketches of all the story’s main characters:
Then, in Chapter 1, Roald Dahl fills in the rest with words:
- Who's it about? Matilda, a little girl.
- What happened? The chapter is called "The Reader of Books" to introduce her favourite thing in the world. What happens to begin the story is that Matilda begins reader, despite her father's hatred of it. He asks her, "What's wrong with the telly, for heaven's sake?"
- When? Most children's books are assumed to be set in the present, and Matilda is no exception. They have cars and televisions, so the setting is modern-day England.
- Where? Matilda lives in a small English village, ten minutes' walk from a public library.
- Why? This is the crucial story problem: Matilda is unloved. Dahl writes, "Mr and Mrs Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away" like a scab.
You want to open your story with the 5 W’s, just like a journalist, but don’t forget to keep going back and filling in those 5 W’s throughout your story. If you crack open a favourite story by an established writer, chances are you’ll find the answers to the 5 W’s liberally sprinkled throughout.
If you leave out any of the 5, your reader will be disoriented or – worse – make assumptions about your story that aren’t true. If you leave out “when,” I’ll assume your story is set in the present. But then in Chapter 2, if you show a character riding in a horse and buggy, or a chariot, I’ll be very, very confused.
Don’t think, however, that you have to answer the questions directly. You don’t have to say, “Charlie Bucket, who was 11 years old, lived in modern-day London in a small house with his two parents and four grandparents, when he received a very special chocolate bar that changed his life.” This kind of opening checks all the boxes, but in a way that is so tedious I won’t want to read more.
When you give us the answers, remember to SHOW, not tell. Show Charlie turning on a TV and we’ll know he lives in modern times. Show him walking the streets of London, or at least, some big city, crowded with cars and shops and lots of people. Show how excited he is when he finds the money in the street instead of explaining that he is very, very poor.
It’s true that we’re trying to write like journalists, but as story writers, not news writers, we have a little more freedom to play around and present the facts in a fun, captivating way.
How often you go back to those 5 W’s will depend on how long your story is, of course. In a picture book, you might not have to do too much “reminding,” but in a chapter book, you should probably repeat them to fill in the reader at least once per chapter.
One more way to think like a journalist: Don’t be afraid to ask your characters hard questions. Poke and prod them, don’t let them off the hook until they’ve given you the scoop – something new and interesting that even you, their author, didn’t expect to hear.
Who, what, when, where, why. If you think back to high school English, there’s one more question word I’ve left out here: HOW. The how, of course, is how your character solves the problem created by the WHY. And that’s a topic for a whole other post.
How will you use the 5 W’s to make your next story even more scrump-diddly-umptious?