Who, What, When, Where, Why and How: Roadmap for a Story
Back in my long-ago journalism days we had a mantra of questions that had to be used on every story – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I was raised in a newspapering family, so that was drilled into me from toddler years.
When I decided to start writing novels, I was pleasantly surprised to find that those same queries – with just a little rearranging of emphasis and timing – fit quite well into books of any genre, be it romance, mystery, whatever. Those six questions are the backbone of a story.
They fit especially well into mystery. In The Hollow House, an historical cozy murder mystery, I had two ‘Who’ questions – Who was the killer, and Who was the heroine? As she admitted from the first, she was using another name and running away from something. What was equally split – What happened at the Stubbs mansion and What was the heroine hiding from?
When was pretty obvious; the action in the Stubbs mansion unfolded in front of the reader. The When (and the What and the Why) of the heroine’s past was doled out in small bites. The Where of the story was again fairly obvious, but done with care. I am a firm believer that the location of a story is as much a character in the action as any of the breathing participants. Sometimes more. Nearly all the action in The Hollow House takes place inside the Stubbs mansion, and I did that for two reasons. First, that was the only logical place I could get and keep all my disparate characters in one place long enough to interact. Second, it was a crafty bit of subtext and nuance to show how constrained and restricted women’s lives were at the time. The Hollow House takes place in 1919.
Why and How are usually the biggies and they wind up the story. The cause of death may have been a simple gunshot, but How did the murderer get into a position to do that and not get caught – at least until the end of the book? Or, to use a different twist, How asks which way was the murder committed and How was it done. Why is pretty much self explanatory, as it is part of the reasoning process by which the sleuth solves the mystery as well – in many cases – the reason for the story itself.
In other genres the correlations are still there, but not necessarily quite so straightforward. In my March 12 release, Inheritance of Shadows, a traditional Gothic romance, there are two mysteries – What happened to the heroine’s father, an author of high fantasy novels, twenty five years ago and What is happening to the heroine now? Who is responsible and Why is he/she/they/it doing it? (I’m not giving away any hints!) Where is again as important as any human character, in this case a grand Connecticut estate and a small, exclusive college.
When again is two-fold; What happened twenty-five years ago and How does it correlate to what is happening now? In the case of Inheritance of Shadows, the heroine’s very perception of reality is challenged; is the fantasy world her father created, the world that still draws fans to his books and inspires costumed conventions, truly and absolutely fictitious?
I’m not telling the solution to either book. When you read, use Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How to see if you can see the author’s thread of thought. If you write, try Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How as a starting point for your outline. It works.
Thanks for joining us today, Janis! -- AP