Back in high school, I took one semester of journalism. As is pretty typical for a beginning journalism class, it concentrated on drilling into us the importance of the classic “five W’s and one H” – the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How – that we were to be sure to include in every story. We were also told that this was very much a journalism thing, and nothing to do with fiction, thank you very much.
It took me quite a number of years to appreciate the utter baloney-ness of that second statement. The classic five W’s and one H are the fundamentals of story, whether they’re facts in the real world or imaginary constructs in fiction.
For instance, Who in fiction is obviously the characters. Yes, there are occasional stories that don’t have characters, like Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” but they’re definitely the exception, even in science fiction. The vast majority of stories are about characters, people who may or may not be strictly considered human, but who have human virtues and flaws. Readers may like the main character(s) or loathe them, but they’re seldom indifferent if the story is any good. Even the most stereotypical, cardboard character can catch the reader’s attention if they represent something the reader values – the Loyal Friend, the Faithful Spouse, the Ordinary Guy Who Saves The Day, etc.
What is what happens to the characters in the course of the story. Plot, in other words. OK, in fiction “what happened” is invented – there wasn’t a real gas leak that blew up the apartment building or a real spaceship that actually landed on the White House lawn. But “what happened” is still vital; without it, what you have is a description of a setting or a person, not a story. Of course, “what happened” can be snuck into a description of a setting disguised as the history of the place, or into a character sketch as backstory, but that’s a difference in presentation, not a change in what it is.
When is the time when “what happens” happened. By time, I don’t necessarily mean “7 a.m. on a Sunday morning” – most stories don’t need that kind of precision. “Present day” is good enough for a lot of mainstream, romance, literary, and mystery fiction, but even then it’s usually a good idea to have some indication of whether it’s winter or summer, and whether a particular scene happens in the morning, afternoon, or late at night. For historical fiction, and for much fantasy and SF, giving the reader a clear idea of when the story is happening is a lot more important. If the main character has to attend a party at the White House, it makes a big difference whether it’s 1960, 1911, or 1863, and the sooner that’s clear to the reader, the better.
Where is the setting, the place where “what happens” happens. Some writers prefer to set their stories in Anytown, U.S.A. or Generic Modern City, hoping/intending that their readers will place the story “just around the corner from wherever I am.” This rarely works; it’s even harder than trying to make the main character an Everyperson so all readers can identify with him/her (and that’s next to impossible, given the difficulties of presenting a main character without giving away his/her gender and automatically futzing the identification of one half of the readers right there. Sarah Caudwell is the only writer I can think of who’s pulled it off).
And even Anytown, U.S.A. is going to have weather, and the weather will be vastly different depending on whether it’s near a coast, in the Great Plains, in the desert Southwest, or in the Rockies. Most of the time, writers are best off picking or inventing a specific, unique place: New Orleans or Boston or San Diego or New Ruritania. Most science fiction and fantasy writers are forced to work out their settings in detail even if their stories are supposedly present-day, in order to integrate the SF and fantasy elements believably.
Why is more than the characters’ motivations, though those are certainly critical. Why also includes the backstory and setup, and applies to every other W on the list: Why here? Why now? Why did this happen (and not that)? Why these people and not those?
And finally, How covers the mechanics and logistics: step by step, how did this happen? If what happened is “aliens blew up the library,” and why is “because they thought it was a secret robot factory,” the how has to do with the armaments on the alien ship and how they got the “evidence” that the library was really a robot factory. If what happened is that Frodo drops the One Ring in a volcano, how did this happen starts with “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” and all the events that led up to Bilbo acquiring the ring, passing it on to Frodo, Gandalf discovering its nature, the Council of Rivendell deciding to destroy it, etc.
If you can nail down all six of these elements for your story, you have a good solid place from which to start writing. If you can’t figure out what’s wrong with something you’ve written, looking at these gives you another angle to use to determine if anything critical is missing, or just not as clear as it needs to be.
Finally, Jeremy Porter has a charming post on this subject. It’s supposedly aimed at journalists, but the example he uses to illustrate the six elements is a familiar story – “The Three Little Pigs.”