Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Six Questions Fiction Must Answer

You may remember from sixth-grade English that a writer must answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why – and of course, how. Though these details have a long history in rhetoric, Rudyard Kipling usually receives credit for popularizing them in a poem included in his “Just So” stories, published in 1902:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

This procedure, called the Kipling method, is usually associated with journalism, but the method also applies to creative writing. As in a newspaper article, these six details provide all the necessary information for a piece of writing.

Let’s break it down.

What, of course, answers the question of plot: a theft, an affair, a pursuit. Though your plot may be long and complicated, it does still break down to this one simple question: What happened?

Why answers the question of motives. Why did Bilbo steal the ring? Why did Anna Karenina kill herself? Why did Harker set out to kill Count Dracula? While motives are rarely clear-cut, they, with all their convoluted reasoning, are still necessary to flesh out a story.

When puts a timestamp on the piece. Even if your work takes place in a fantasy setting with no parallel to our Western timeline, it’s still necessary to situate the piece in a named era or age, as Tolkien did with his epic Lord of the Rings (Third Age, starting in 3001), or as Brandon Sanderson did in his Mistborn series (the Final Empire).

How also answers plot questions. How did Frodo destroy the Ring? How did Anna’s life unravel? How did Count Dracula go about thwarting his pursuers?

Where applies to setting. Though setting is underutilized in modern fiction, in times past, setting proved indispensable, such as in Jack London’s stories or in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Because environment contributes to shaping of a person, setting shows your readers another how as well: how your characters came to be the way they are. Could Scarlett O’Hara, for example, have been a Northern belle?

Finally, we come to Who. This question might appear the simplest to answer, but we’re talking more than name and rank: who covers the character and soul of the individuals in your piece. Who is Anna, that she has a brazen affair? Who is King Arthur, that he sleeps with his own sister? Who is Lisbeth Salander, that she sets out to kill her father?

By answering all of these questions when you have a mosquito of an idea, you can chart a course for your story. Of course, in fiction, you won’t simply relate the facts (unless you’re Hemingway); you’ll dress these up and elaborate on them, but when you boil your story down, these are the questions that form its backbone.

Excuses, Excuses, I Hear Them Every Day

When did you first start writing? When you were a child? A teenager?

As Picasso said, all children are artists. But most creative children lose the habit as they become adults, getting caught up in more lucrative pursuits. These individuals don’t look back, never considering taking up creativity again, not even as a hobby. But some people always regret that they didn’t keep writing.

Perhaps you are one of those individuals full of regret; perhaps you wish, deep down, that you could be a writer — a real writer. You imagine yourself at parties, cocktail in hand, possibly in a tweed jacket and John Lennon glasses. “Why, yes,” you’d say, swirling your cocktail casually. “I did just sign a book deal.”

I’m reminded of a James Joyce story, “A Little Cloud.” In this early short story, Joyce describes Little Chandler, a man anticipating a visit from a successful writer friend. His imagination stoked by his literary chum, he thinks of acting on his long-suppressed impulses, perhaps writing some poetry, for he’s always fancied poetry. However, unsurprisingly, by the end of the story, Little Chandler has decided that a poetry career is impossible for him. He has responsibilities, after all, choking, crushing responsibilities.’s the truth: You’ll always have responsibilities. Even if you have the luxury of quitting your job and writing for eight hours a day, you’ll still have to take the recycling out, do your laundry, and clean the litter box. You cannot avoid responsibilities, and you cannot put off writing because of them.

Devote a special time of the day to writing. Block that time off as faithfully as you would a massage, and turn off your cell phone. Draw the blinds, and inform your spouse or roommate you are absolutely, one hundred percent unavailable at that time. This time is as important for your mental health as showering is for your physical health.

Some people simply rise early in the morning and write before anyone gets up. Some people write late at night, after everyone is in bed. Some people, such as myself, can’t do either, so one trick I used when I worked in an office was to write longhand in a notebook over my lunch break. I usually managed five pages that way, and I wrote quite consistently, even looking forward to it.

The point is, stop denying yourself the joy of writing because of imagined obstacles. You don’t have to write anything awesome, and no one ever has to see it. Don’t be fooled by the guy in the tweed jacket and hip glasses; a writer is one who writes — period.

Crafting a Premise Sentence to Keep Yourself on Track

If you ever had to write a paper in college, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an abstract. An abstract is a short summary of a paper that precedes the paper itself. This abstract notes the main points of the paper, as well as its conclusion.

Similarly, as K.M. Weiland writes in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, writing has its premise sentence. A premise sentence pins down such variables as your protagonist’s identity, the nature of the central conflict and plot, and any relevant details, such as setting. However, unlike an elevator pitch or abstract, writers should craft the premise sentence before writing the actual work.

This premise sentence essentially serves as your lighthouse. Clarifying and directing your thoughts, it keeps the overall thrust of the work at the forefront. Additionally, distilling all your thoughts into one sentence can help you glean particulars from your general concept. For example, you may think that your main character’s primary problem lies in her rootlessness, so you might write the following:

Nixie Morrison is a rootless young woman who searches for a home.

Doesn’t exactly grab you, does it? So make it specific:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for her home colony of Ressad.

Much more specific. Still, I haven’t indicated the conflict. So, what about this:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for Ressad, her home colony – but the man who slaughtered half of Ressad, including her parents, is determined that she never find it.

There you have the protagonist, her situation and a character trait, the plot, her backstory, and a conflict, all in one sentence. Now, if I write Nixie’s story, I can refer to it as I go, making sure that all my threads weave into this one, central idea.

What do you do with your premise sentence once you’ve worked it out? I suggest posting it in a location where you can see it while you write. This keeps the premise in your mind and can potentially prevent your plot from wandering off-course. It’ll save you time and the disappointment of realizing that you’ve spent the last fifty pages chasing a plot that doesn’t add up in the end.

Worst-Case Scenarios Make for the Best Stories

As I’ve written before, a good story requires conflict. Without tension, a story lacks intrigue, and a lack of intrigue stops a reader cold. But how do you generate ideas for conflict?

One method consists in brainstorming a list of the worst scenarios that could happen to your character. Say your character, whom we’ll call Wilmot, is a pacifist who only wants to avoid the war brewing in the kingdom in which he resides. If Wilmot’s desire to avoid the war comprises his main goal, then you’ll need a dozen minor conflicts along the way to thwart that goal.

What terrible circumstances could happen to our pacifist? Well, Wilmot might think he’ll be fine so long as the war doesn’t reach his little farm in that out-of-the-way corner of the kingdom. But what if a band of rebels encroaches on his homestead? How will Wilmot respond to that? Then, what if the rebels decide to stay and make his farm their headquarters?

SoldiersWhat’s another awful event that could befall Wilmot? Suppose Wilmot possesses expertise in some area that the rebels lack knowledge in — and they impress him into serving their cause with that knowledge?

Or, for example, what if the leader of the rebels takes a fancy to Wilmot’s winsome teenage daughter? Then, what if the rebels say they’re moving on — but his daughter, won to their cause and enamored with the rebel leader, runs away with them?

All of these ideas can try Wilmot’s desire to remain a pacifist. His world has been invaded; his farm has been defiled; he’s been made to help the rebels; and his own daughter has joined them. Compound these awful events a few times, and you have a dozen worst-case scenarios to test Wilmot’s mettle.

Think of every possible blow to your protagonist and his or her goal. Be merciless. It’s your job to make life miserable for your main character; keep in mind that fire purifies. In the end, you want a hero who withstood the worst that fate can devise for him or her, because in the end, those are the characters we want to read about.