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.

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