Focusing Your Novel with A Journalist’s Trick

Okay, perhaps it’s more of a tool than a trick, but journalists have been using the “Who-What-Where-When-Why-and-How” format on hard news pieces for well over a century (to judge by the sort of articles they write, where each of these items are addressed), and I’ve found the six questions are equally useful when writing a novel.

Because, like journalists, we’re writing a story about something that happened…it’s just that it happened in our imagination. The standard six questions can be used when brainstorming your next story, focusing your editing, or trying to come up with a blurb (which is rather like a very short news article about your novel, without the ending disclosed).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA by Alvimann

  • Who. This may seem obvious, but a lot of times, authors need to clarify whose story they are telling. Is it the young lad who’s just learning to swing a sword? The hardened veteran? The king? The spy for the other side? The woman who’s hiding her identity so she can fight alongside her countrymen? If you use first person narration, it should be very obvious who the story belongs to, but when you’re using third person omniscient or third person close, with many different character points-of-view, this will become critical and a bit more of a puzzle for you, the author, to solve. The novel can’t belong to everyone or the reader will get confused, so you have to latch onto a “Who.”

Now, you might have a story that features multiple characters as the “Who,” like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but picking out a Who, even if it’s only on a scene-by-scene basis, will help ensure you don’t head-hop. And you might try writing a “group story” from one character’s POV just to see how it feels. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from Edmund’s POV would be a deep, heart-felt story of redemption while the same plot from Lucy’s POV would highlight the agony of losing Aslan. (And you wouldn’t have to shut the other characters out of your tale; you’d just focus on one or the other as the main character of the story.)

  • What. This is the sentence or two that is the heart of the story (and should probably appear, in some form or another, in your book’s description/blurb). In the case of The Lord of the Rings,  it’s the journey to destroy the ring of power despite the evil forces that lurk in every corner of the realm. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, it’s about discovering a world where it’s always winter, never Christmas…or perhaps the struggle against the temptation of being a king when it means betraying your family and friends.

The “What” can be the hardest question for an author to answer because, for us, the story is made up of so many scenes. It’s about the bath at Frodo’s house, the betrayal of Gandalf, the chase by the ring wraiths…and we can get bogged down in the details until we can’t see the big picture of what 0ur novel is about. But, if we don’t answer the “What” question, our story can spiral into a long, wandering tale without any focus, and writing a blurb can be well nigh impossible (save for something vague about “A tale of friends as they walk through the joys and sorrows of Middle Earth).

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  • When and Where. These are two of the more straight-forward questions: when does your action take place, and where? Is it modern times in a big city? The Middle Ages in the countryside? During the Blitz in London? The time is important, especially when it comes to designing your cover, as the font, color palette, and image should reflect the mood and feel of the time period and not just depict the location or characters involved (if they’re featured at all).
  • Why. Not every news article deals with “why,” but as authors, we specialize in this question. Why do the hobbits journey across Middle Earth? Why do the children care about saving Narnia? Why does Edmund long to be king? You might not be able to hint at all the “Why,” but knowing it and including some of it, even in the blurb–that dark forces will destroy their homes and ways of life, that a faun who saved Lucy is in trouble, that Edmund is tired of being the second youngest–all help us relate to the characters and story and make us care. Otherwise, The Lord of the Rings becomes a journey to get rid of an unwanted knickknack, like a somewhat medieval trip to a second hand store, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes fantasy travel fiction.
  • How. In many ways, the “How” collaborates with the questions of “Why?” and “What?,” telling us how they are doing what they’re doing. Is the journey to Mount Doom done with a grand army, by recruiting everyone they can? Or is it done incognito, traveling as secretly as possible? If it didn’t take two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, Edmund’s joining the other side wouldn’t matter as much…but that’s part of the how rescuing Narnia must take place and subsequently raises the stakes at the same time.

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re armed with the heart of the story and the pieces of your blurb. All the rest may be useful to reveal the characters, to show them in action and to flesh out the who, what, when, where, why, and how, but simple, one sentence answers will give you a bare-bones outline of what your story is about, which can be immensely useful when editing or trying to tell others about your story.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Alvimann and eskodesign, Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Focusing Your Novel with A Journalist’s Trick

  1. Appreciate these thoughts. I wrote my first novel without having these thoughts to help focus my work. It probably took me longer to write my book, because I was wandering without the focus these thoughts have given me. I hope to apply this thinking as I work on my next novel. Thanks for a great post!

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