On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares how to use the questions of who, what, why, where, when to create your perfect story.
Written by JJ Barnes
When you’re looking at writing a story, it can sometimes feel a little daunting. You’re in charge of creating an entire world, populating it with people, and making those people do interesting things. A real simple way of developing your story and what you need to do is to ask yourself these simple questions.
WHO Is Your Protagonist?
The Protagonist of your story is the main character. It’s their story and it is them you will spend the majority of your time with. Therefore it makes sense that you need to have the clearest image of who they are in your head before you start.
What is their name? How old are they? What do they look like? Give them passions and hobbies, things they are interested in and care about. They need to feel like a real person and somebody worthy of telling a story about. If your audience cannot connect with them, and they don’t feel real, they will struggle to connect with your story. Create somebody who feels worthy of spending an entire story with, somebody interesting and developed and complex.
However, you don’t have to know them perfectly and stick to that perfect plan before writing. You can work out their backstory and their interests as you move through the story, change them according to what your story needs. Your story can be as fluid as you need it to be, and your characters can be developed around that fluidity. That said, be careful to track your character continuity. Characters can arc through changes, but they cannot be changed suddenly from scene to scene.
WHAT Do Your Characters Want?
This is essential for your story because it is going to drive every single scene. You’re sending them on a journey and they need to be motivated the whole way through. If your Protagonist doesn’t care enough about what’s going on to be driving the story forwards, your audience won’t care.
You are writing this period of their life for a reason. They live before Chapter One and, unless you kill them, they will live on after The End. You join them for this period of time because a story is being told. That story is your Protagonist transitioning from passive to active so they can go in pursuit of a goal.
What they want could be anything. It could be to fall in love, it could be to win a competition, it could be to kill a monster. As long as they want something, you’ve got a story to tell. They go in pursuit of this goal and drive through to the end until they either accomplish their goal, or fail.
The person who could make them fail is your Antagonist. This is the character who either wants to accomplish the same thing, and they can’t both have it, or wants to stop your Protagonist. If your Protagonist wants to fall in love, maybe your Antagonist is in love with the same person. For a competition, your Antagonist could be on the opposite team. If your Protagonist wants to kill the monster, maybe the Antagonist IS the monster.
WHY Do Your Characters Want It?
Why the story goal matters is it’s what makes your story interesting. If there’s no reason for them to want it, your audience won’t care if they get it, so they won’t care about your story. So make why they want it clear. Make it matter.
This is known as the stakes. If the stakes are low, failure doesn’t really matter. Maybe they can try again to accomplish their goal soon, or the second choice is just fine. However, if the stakes are high, it really matters. This means there is no second chance, there are no alternatives that will do, and failure is a crisis. When the stakes are high, your audience will immediately be more emotionally invested in the story.
Your audience cares about your Protagonist, wants to see them get what they want, and is emotionally invested in their success. This means they care enough about your story to see it through to the end.
WHERE Is Your Story Set?
You establish the location of your story through world building. If it is a fantasy world, such as another planet or a magical realm, you will need to do more world building. If your story is set in a standard high school, you need to do less. But either way, you need your audience to have a clear image in their minds of where your story is playing out.
If you info dump the world on your audience, it will feel boring. Take them on a journey through the world using the Protagonist’s experiences to show not tell. If it is a fantasy world, give them reasons to ask questions. They could be an outsider who needs to understand the laws or the way of magic, or they’re somebody who is being educated by a mentor who will guide them.
The world your story is set in acts as the stage. Without a clear stage for your action to play out on, your audience has nothing but a white box around your characters. It’s unnatural and it is boring, so give them a world. Make it feel real. If something in that world stands out as interesting to your Protagonist, maybe the smells or colours are striking, the way people dress could be interesting, then explore it. Let your audience experience that strange new world through the eyes of your Protagonist.
WHEN Is Your Story Happening?
When your story is happening is closely connected to where. If you are telling a story about Victorian England, then you need to be careful. The names, the customs, the fashions, and the word choices are all important. Technically it might not change your story is they have a food on their plate that people in Victorian times didn’t have access to. It’s just one small part of your story. But you are not the only person consuming this story.
If you are writing a historical novel for an audience who loves stories set in that time period, respect your audience. They love that time period and they are excited to explore it and experience stories set then. If you have things clearly out of place for no reason other than you didn’t bother to do good research, your audience will be booted out. They will feel your lack of care for that story and that time, and they will feel your lack of respect for them.
This doesn’t mean you cannot write things completely out of place for that time period. If you want aliens to land in Victorian England then have it happen. Dr. Who and The Nevers are both solid examples of this working perfectly in stories. That part is clearly fiction. But to write an unbelievable story in a believable way, the details of the world have to be correct, and your unbelievable moment has to be treated as something shocking. If your characters respond to something out of place in a believable way, then your audience will accept the unbelievable thing.
Planning Or Pantsing
Keeping the who, what, why, where, when in your mind all the way through your story will help. It will keep your characters motivated, your world alive, and your continuity in your mind. Your story can be as big or small, as complex or as simple, as you like. But if you are following these questions throughout, your story will make sense and it will be entertaining.
If you’re a planner, focus on these questions are you build out your plot. If you’re a pantser, keep them in mind as you discover the story while you write. Be ready to change and adapt your story by what you and your story need, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes as you go. Editing and back filling are how you fix up any mistakes where you have drifted away from your plot or made mistakes.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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