The Five W’s in journalism have long been considered the concepts used in basic information gathering, particularly in police investigations. The principle is that each question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, but must elicit factual answers. This is a formula for getting the full story on something.
For the crime report, the Five W’s must be answered, as well as an H and M. This formula is not just ideal for writers of mystery, suspense, thrillers, crime and detective novels (which I’ll categorize as thrillers), but also for anyone writing most fictional stories.
Let’s look at our checklist--
Who? – Who are your protagonists? For a romance, who are the hero and heroine? And who are the antagonists? For thrillers, who was the victim? Who are the suspects? You need at least one victim and one suspect. Also, your ‘who’ includes your investigator(s).
‘Who’ in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: My protagonists are Michael ‘Mick’ Spillane and Kathleen “Kate” Conneely, two people who grew up together and fell in love. The antagonists include Flann Flannery, the man Mick hires to manage the farm, and Gobnait, a woman in Dublin who has her sights fixed firmly on Mick.
What? – What’s happening? This is the base of your plot. For a thriller, what type of crime was committed? What are the leads? Every crime leaves clues to the crime and suspect. The investigator must discover what the details are and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle to solve the crime.
Your ‘what’ could also be what kind of people your characters are: What happened in the past that’s made them the person they are today? What do they need to do in the course of the story to get to their goal or destination? And if they suffer setbacks along the way, what will they do to get out sticky situations?
‘What’ in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: Mick must find a way to keep the family farm that will allow him to return to Dublin. Kate agrees to help, but under certain conditions. Best laid plans don’t always work out the way we want though. What’s in their background is a delicate relationship on the verge of blooming when an unforeseen force drives them apart. Working together to save the farm brings both of their shared pasts back into focus.
Where? – ‘Where’ is where your story is set, or if you’re writing a thriller, where did the crime take place? Where was the body found (assuming it was murder)? Where did the victim disappear (possibly a kidnapping)? Where was the weapon found?
Also, where are your characters from? Where are they now? Is college an important aspect of the story? If so, where did they attend? Where do they work? Where do they want to be in life, or even ten years time?
‘Where’ in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: This story is primarily set in Connemara in the western part of Ireland. It’s a very traditional part of the country, where Irish is commonly spoken and farming is still a primary occupation. Kate and Mick are native Connemarans, having grown up on neighboring farms. Mick always dreamed of going to college, and when the opportunity presented itself, he moved to Dublin to pursue a degree in Irish history. When the story opens, Mick is working at the National Museum of Ireland. Kate also attended college, receiving her training in palliative care nursing. She uses her training to care for Mick’s parents when they fall ill. And for ten years, Kate has been trying to move on with her life, but Mick is still deeply ingrained in her soul.
When? – ‘When’ usually refers to time, such as when a crime took place. If it’s a murder, the coroner will place a death at an approximate time. When also refers to a deadline the crime must be solved by before the villain acts again, or goal the protagonists must work toward before the story ends. It also refers to an era in which the story is set, such as a historical.
‘When’ in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: This story is set in contemporary times. The goal Kate and Mick must work toward is finding a way Mick can return to Dublin without losing the farm. There’s also a timeline, as Flann has plans of his own for the farm, and Gobnait is carrying a secret that could ruin any future Mick hoped to have with Kate.
Why? – Why is the reason something happened...a crime, an incident or accident, a kidnapping, etc. Why also means why did this happen and why was a particular person targeted? If it could have been prevented, why wasn’t it? Why are people reacting in certain ways?
There is a reason for everything, and the writer must work his/her way through the story to discover the answer to the question of why.
‘Why’ in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: Why is Kate helping Mick find a way to keep the farm and return to Dublin? Why did Mick want to leave the farm so desperately ten years ago? Why is Kate still keeping her love for Mick alive when she knows he’s leaving Connemara again?
Then we come to H and M--
H = How? – How did the crime or incident happen? This is usually where Hercule Poirot brings everyone into the same room and lays out his theory behind the crime. He’ll tell them how the murder was committed, including what had happened, where it happened, when it happened, why it happened, and who had been killed. In the end, he’ll shock everyone and point to the person who committed the act.
M = Method? – Last but not least, we have the method in which the crime happened. If it was murder, how did the killer do it? Technically, this is another How, but it’s important to differentiate the revelation of a crime by explaining the method in which it was committed, which includes the tool(s) did he/she used to exact his/her revenge—bare hands, a knife, a gun, etc.?
‘How and method in ‘A Piece of My Heart’: How and by what method will Mick and Kate tell their story? You’ll have to read the book!
One of the best ways to keep your characters consistent while writing is to keep index cards. Or you can set up a special file on your computer. Just be sure each folder is relevant to the story you’re working on. The index cards or computer notes should include as much personal detail of each character as possible. Don’t just include their physical characteristics and their overall personalities. Also include motives behind their actions, how they were raised and family life, and how that life made your character the person who they are today. See how many of the W’s you can answer for each character. You won’t necessarily use everything on the cards in your story, but it gives you a way to flesh out each character, which will drive his/her motives.
You can use colored index cards to keep things separate--white cards for protagonists, yellow cards for antagonists, pink cards for major incidents, and so on. Some authors like to pin their index cards to a cork board to have readily available. This helps with plotting if you use a card for each plot point you need to remember through the story. You want to be sure all questions in the story are neatly wrapped up by the end, and index cards can help you do that.
Remember, just like every person you’d meet on the street, each of your characters will have his/her own story to tell. Use this formula to create well-fleshed characters to enrich your story.
Now, get out those index cards and a sharp pencil, find a quiet place to think, and create your story!