Journalism writing often uses the 5W1H structure. The first few paragraphs of a news article should answer 6 basic questions (which start with 5 Ws and an H): Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
While fiction writing doesn’t try to cram the essentials into the beginning paragraphs, those same questions are important for our storytelling. In fact, we can use specific questions from that structure to understand the big picture—or essence—of our story, plot, and theme.
Story vs. Plot
First, though, we need to understand that our story and our plot are not the same. A story is about our characters’ struggle, while a plot is the events that reveal the characters and choices explored in the story.
Let’s illustrate the difference with an example plot idea: An asteroid is coming to smash the Earth to smithereens.
Yikes! Okay, but what about it? Who’s doing the struggling against those consequences?
Without characters, that asteroid’s just going to do its thing, same as it would on an uninhabited planet. Boom, crash, the end. There’s no story there because there’s no story problem there—no characters attempting to overcome the obstacles of the plot.
What’s a Story?
To have a story, we need characters who face a problem. And it’s only when we decide who our characters are or the choices they’ll face that we’ll know what our asteroid story is:
- Plucky team of astronauts try to destroy the asteroid before it reaches Earth.
- Doomed world leaders debate how to help their citizens react in the last days.
- Estranged family members reach out to each other and heal wounds before the end.
- And so on…
Each of those character examples defines a story problem—they want to destroy, debate, or heal. In turn, the story problem defines the story, as the characters attempt to solve their problem.
What’s a Plot?
On the other hand, if the asteroid is only big enough to cause a few cloudy days, our characters would have no reason to make big changes or choices. That’s where plot comes in: Plot events are the triggers forcing choices and changes in our characters.
Story Questions vs. Plot Questions
Now back to that 5W1H structure…
As a story is about a struggle or an attempt to solve a story problem, we can begin to define the layers of our story with questions that focus on that struggle or problem:
- Who? Who is doing the struggling or attempting to solve the problem? (team of astronauts)
- What? What is the struggle or problem? What do our characters want? (destroy the asteroid)
We can further define our story with other questions, especially in certain genres such as historical or science fiction (When? 1892 or the distant future, Where? England or outer space), but the two bullets above are generally the most important.
As a plot is about the events that force choices and changes, we can begin to define the layers of our plot with questions that focus on those events:
- How? How are the characters being pushed into action or choices? How are they trying to reach their goal? (an asteroid is coming to smash the Earth, so they’re trying to blow it up)
Note that it may seem like additional questions would help us further define the plot:
- What? What plot events will best reveal our characters? (an accident takes out the mission leader and the protagonist needs to step up)
- When? or Where? to describe the circumstances causing the story to take place now (explaining the reasons those estranged family members finally reach out to each other, when they technically could have healed the wounded relationship at any time)
But those are all just other ways of getting at the How, defining the triggers that force the changes and choices in our story.
How Does Our Story’s Theme Fit In?
Theme is usually said to be a story’s “message,” but what does that mean in practice? How can we define what the theme of a particular story might be, especially when…
- themes are less concrete or obvious (often found in the subtext or a single sentence)
- stories contain multiple themes (formed by story premise, worldview, character arc, plot events, etc.)
- stories often include unintended themes (which can undermine our intended themes)
In other words, we might not know what our story’s themes are—or should be. Even if we brainstorm from “theme idea” lists, those nouns or short phrases (war vs. peace, coming of age, love, survival, etc.) aren’t themes until we figure out what we’re trying to say about that topic.
To figure out what we’re trying to say with our story, we can begin to define the layers of our themes with big-picture questions:
- Why? Why does our character participate in the story (in the big picture)? Why are we writing this story? (such as: our protagonist believes the world is worth saving, or we want to inspire others to not give up)
Our Why answers help us narrow down what we’re trying to say with our story, which then helps us define our intended themes. Our protagonist could learn to not take life for granted. Our plot events could present reasons and opportunities for our protagonist to give up, but they believe in the importance of their actions and make choices revealing their persistence. And so on.
From Journalism to Storytelling
Taking a page from journalism writing to identify the most important aspects of our story can help us see the big picture as we plan, draft, or edit our story. Using the 5W1H questions forces us to focus on the essence of our story, especially:
- Who are our characters?
- What do they want?
- How are they going to try to get it?
- Why is the story important (to our character(s) and to us)?
Those answers give us direction as we attempt to get our big-picture thoughts onto the page for our readers to enjoy. *smile*
Have you ever struggled to see your story’s big picture or to identify/develop your story’s themes? Does this framework of using specific questions to define our story’s essence make sense to you? Do you have any questions about story vs. plot vs. theme or how to apply these questions?
Jami Gold put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Jami below.