Thursday, May 3, 2007

Fiction's Fifth "W"

Fiction's fifth "W"
by Dave Swinford

Beginning journalists are advised to provide the "Who, What, Where, When and How" and to get the four "w's" into a story as quickly as is possible. It's sound advice that also applies to fiction by translating the Who into Characters, the Where into Setting, the When into Time frame, the What into Problem, Conflict and/or Theme, and the How into basic Plot.

However, authors of fiction also need to provide readers with a fifth "W" not required of journalists. In addition to Characters, Setting, Time frame, Problem, Conflict and/or Theme, readers of fiction also want the "Why's" of a story. They want to know what motivates the principal characters. Why are those characters acting and behaving as they do when confronted with each new story problem. And, like the basic four "W's", readers of fiction hope to understand some of the "Why's" driving each character after only the shortest of acquaintances with that character.

Experienced authors of fiction understand that the more quickly and effectively they give the reader the five "W's" of a story, the more quickly and effectively they draw that reader into their fictional reality. Here's the opening paragraphs from Andre Norton's 1958 novel, Time Traders. Norton, a prolific author of science fiction, skillfully and quickly provides the reader with the five "W's".
To anyone who glanced casually inside the detention room the young man sitting there did not seem very formidable. In height he might have been a little above average, but not enough to make him noticeable. His brown hair was cropped conservatively; his unlined boy's face was not one to be remembered--unless one was observant enough to note those light-gray eyes and catch a chilling, measuring expression showing now and then for an instant in their depths.

Neatly and inconspicuously dressed, in this last quarter of the twentieth century his like was to be found on any street of the city ten floors below--to all outward appearances.

But that other person under the protective coloring so assiduously cultivated could touch heights of encased and controlled fury which Murdock himself did not understand and was only just learning to use as a weapon against a world he had always found hostile.

He was aware, though he gave no sign of it, that a guard was watching him. The cop on duty was an old hand--he probably expected some reaction other than passive acceptance from the prisoner. But he was not going to get it. The law had Ross sewed up tight this time. Why didn't they get about the business of shipping him off? Why had he had that afternoon session with the skull thumper? Ross had been on the defensive then, and he had not liked it. He had given to the other's questions all the attention his shrewd mind could muster, but a faint, very faint, apprehension still clung to the memory of that meeting.

The door of the detention room opened. Ross did not turn his head but the guard cleared his throat as if their hour of mutual silence had dried his vocal cords. "On your feet, Murdock! The judge wants to see you."

Ross rose smoothly, with every muscle under fluid control. It never paid to talk back, to allow any sign of defiance to show. He would go through the motions as if he were a bad little boy who had realized his errors. It was a meek-and-mild act that had paid off more than once in Ross's checkered past. So he faced the man seated behind the desk in the other room with an uncertain, diffident smile, standing with boyish awkwardness, respectfully waiting for the other to speak first.
In a few paragraphs, Norton introduces the reader to Ross Murdock, a young man residing in an unnamed city in the late twentieth century, who has been apprehended for an unspecified crime and who faces certain punishment. She shows rather than tells the reader that Murdock is driven by a desire to control himself and as much of his situation as is possible.

As the story progresses, new circumstances may generate new "Why's" for Ross Murdock, but the desire to control himself and his situation will continue to influence his choices and actions. His me-versus-a-hostile-world attitude is an essential aspect of Murdock's character.

Thus, authors of fiction need to understand the "Why's" of each major character and to show that character to the reader in a way that exposes those inner desires and drives. A character's motives are often directly linked to the conflicts of a story. This is especially true if one is writing a character-driven story, because in a character-driven story, it is the inner needs and desires that propel the character and events.

Taking time to consider each character's motives can also be a way of fleshing out an original story idea. It may lead to interesting sub-plots and/or suggest different ways of presenting and playing out the central conflicts. Considering a character's motives may even be a way of generating entirely new story ideas.

Thus, the time an author of fiction spends nailing down the fifth "W" can pay excellent dividends for both the author and the reader.

Link: Time Traders

Dave Swinford is an Internet Writing Workshop administrator.

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