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December 6

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5 W’s (and sometimes H) of Scene Outlining

by Ann-Kat

In grade school, we were told that to be a good raconteur, we should remember the 5 W’s (and sometimes H).

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?
  5. Why?
  6. (and sometimes How?)

The 5 W’s (and sometimes H) Explained

Who did it or who’s it happening to?
Ulysses McKenzie

What did "who" do or what did the "who" want to happen?
Example: Ulysses was in a car accident.

When did the "what" occur?
Example: A Sunday afternoon in May

Where did the "what" happen?
Example: The corner of Wiltshire Boulevard and Maple Lane

Why did the "what" happen?
Example: Because Ulysses dropped his iPod on the floor and was bending over to pick it up.

There’s a special note about the why, sometimes we simply don’t know why and that’s OK. As the author, you should know why something happens although you may not reveal it to the readers. It will help you construct the story when you at least have all the parts outlined. The why could even be something internal, for instance, Ulysses could have been distracted because he’d broken up with his girlfriend that morning and he was distraught.

How did the "what" happen?
Example: Ulysses yanked the steering wheel hard right as he reached down for the iPod, the car careened for a few seconds when he realized what was happening and slammed on his brakes and skidded into the tree.

The how is special. It’s where the magic happens. It’s the difference between "he was in an accident" and "his car skidded into a tree at 95MPH". The how is the adornment because it can bring life to otherwise stark facts.

Practical Applications

This lesson drifted back to me as I was editing the novel of the moment and I began thinking of each chapter as its own small story, each with its own 5 W’s (and sometimes H).

So, I decided to put that theory to the test. I grabbed a sheet of paper, at the top I wrote "Chapter 1 Scene 1" and then wrote out:

  • who made an appearance in the chapter/scene;
  • what they did and what they were supposed to do or wanted to happen;
  • when the scenes took place (month, day, day of week, time of day);
  • where everything happened (specificity is a wonderful thing);
  • and why it happened (the motivations of each character along with any external influences);
  • Sometimes the how made it onto the list, but sometimes I deliberately left it out for suspense.

Although I worked at the micro-level (i.e. scenes within chapters), the exercise reminded me that there is also a story happening at the macro-level–the entire book.

  • Who? The protagonist(s).
  • What? Find star-crossed love in a new city.
  • When? Summer 2008 through Winter 2009
  • Where? Providence, RI and Crescent Hill, CA
  • Why? (sometimes a tough one to summarize on a grand scale) The "who" lost his house, forced to move for work, and finds himself lonely.

Using this method of outlining, I’ve been able to dig deep into each chapter of the story and tighten them up.

Comments on 5 W’s (and sometimes H) of Scene Outlining

  1. # David C Rivas wrote on December 7, 2008 at 12:21 pm:

    What a wonderful and simple way to outline! i will put it to practice. thank you.

  2. # Ann-Kat wrote on December 7, 2008 at 4:44 pm:

    Thanks for the kind words, David. I’m definitely glad the outlining technique is proving useful and I hope you enjoy using it. :D

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