5W+H newspaper method gels writing beat


Every once in a while I get myself into a jam, and, though I think I have every thing I need in writing a piece of a scene, it fails to gel, I feel frustrated and tied in knots, and I keep going at it from all directions, starting and restarting the section without getting to a coherent flow.

I tried an old newspaper trick this morning.

Newspaper reporters have to make it fast and easy for a reader to engage with a story, get the basic information into the reader before she does the pre-computer equivalent of clicking on something else to read: giving up on one story, and finding either another one to read or moving on to the rest of her day.

Your English teacher probably taught you this, too (I didn’t have an English teacher, so maybe that’s why I came to this in a roundabout way).

It’s called 5W + H.

And it means, you recall, supplying the six pieces of information the reader needs to lodge the basics of the story in his head:

  • Who – people present or necessary to the story
  • Where – setting
  • What – is going on (the plot)
  • When – time, time frame, sequence
  • Why – are you telling this story? Why did they do it?
  • How – the plot reaches resolution, and the information is transferred securely into the reader’s head.

The order doesn’t really matter as long as, after a very brief period, the reader has enough to interest him to keep reading the details.

TV news people usually drag this out as long as possible, especially if there have been little advance hints all day (news at 11) – and now they have to supply the goods. They tease you along with the less interesting bits, finally supplying the actual meat of the story (which is often anticlimactic – I waited up past my bedtime for this?) after as many commercials as possible, when they could have ‘informed’ you the first time you heard about the story.

Writers can’t afford this – the reader won’t stick around.

For the writer of FICTION

The problem for a writer is when the dramatic pieces want to come first – the startling headline, the shocking news – but they won’t make sense without the more informational bits.

Readers have an empty gray-goo area in the brain, a formless void, when they approach a new story, and it has to be filled in quickly.

If you don’t reveal that this shocking dog’s death occurred, not in their neighborhood, but in Manila, they will 1) assume it’s local, and 2) be annoyed at you when they find out it’s not.

So the system is: shocker, fill in the absolutely necessary stuff to orient the reader, more shocking details.

But it’s not the reader’s job to avoid the confusion: it’s the writer’s job.

LEAD with the emotions

Life is boring – readers need vicarious experiences.

We are, as Lisa Kron says in Wired for Story, primed to absorb new information that we need.

Need is critical: grab readers by the emotions, and supply the details as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they will follow.

What I figured out was that I’m relatively good at doing these steps in a normal scene – hook, set the scene, supply story, leave cliffhanger of at least one question so the reader will read the next scene.

But not when I get tricky – for good story reasons – and try to cram a lot into the piece of scene.

Then I need to stop, make sure the 5W+H are provided asap, and choreograph the presentation of story information in the most effective way I can. Deliberately. As if I had a news desk editor with a lot of experience to satisfy, and the pickiest readers.

The contract with the reader

Lead the reader down the garden path, as it were, until we find the dead body.

If you can do this in a tricky case, it improves the facility for doing it in normal situations.

It comes down, after you’ve identified the 5W + H:


Just as soon as the reader starts to think all this is a bit too much, it GELS.

Because the critical information is all there.

And the reader is no longer confused, the dreaded info drop has been avoided, and the story is firmly lodged (one hopes) back in the reader’s brain.

The analytical side of my brain is very pleased with itself – the artistic side is chomping at the bit.

The details? You’ll eventually have to read Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD to grade my performance, but I can tell you the bit is the beginning of the second scene; it involves four people and four different settings; there is a tiny necessary shift in the timeline; the formatting helps (Lord knows how I’m going to do this in the audiobook version); and, if I do it right, it will bring you right back into the story with very little ’splainin’ (think Ricky Ricardo and I Love Lucy: “Lucy! You got some ’splainin’ to do!”).

Trust me, the other way was long and boring.

What say you? I love discussion.

Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images for posts.


12 thoughts on “5W+H newspaper method gels writing beat

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I totally agree that emotion is the heart of fiction. And that you do not want to confuse the reader. Mislead, perhaps, if you are writing a mystery (which I am, at the moment). But boredom and confusion will throw your reader right out of the story. And then that reader might put your book down, never to pick it up again. Every writer’s horror! 😀

    I’ve learned that every book I write confronts me with something (or things) that I have not done in previous books. This is a good thing. It means I am growing as a writer, challenging myself to learn and get ever more skillful at my craft. I’ve heard other writers say the same. The trick is to not be too surprised when you hit a difficult scene or plot point. Trust that you will figure it out.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Silly me thought I could have just continued from Book 1, without learning too much new.

      I would have run into the problem in some form or another anyway.

      One book does not give you the chance to learn everything. Except possibly about how you want your formatting to look (so the whole trilogy has the same physical appearance, the same ‘brand’).

      I’m hoping to follow your advice – and not be surprised when it happens. It will happen.


  2. Bun Karyudo

    We did learn about the 5W+H at school. We were taught about it in the context of analyzing newspaper stories, funnily enough. According to the teacher, journalists would traditionally try to get most of this information into the first paragraph as possible because he or she was never sure how much of the subsequent article would be cut for space reasons.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      In newspapers, the reporter/writer is told that the story may be chopped – from the back up – if it doesn’t fit. So, basic info in quickly, and then details and nice writing, but no chance to build up to something – the reader might never get to see the punchline.

      This works very well for sneaking necessary backstory in fiction quickly – before the reader gets bored.

      It’s necessary information for Book 2, and all my thinking didn’t produce a faster way to get it in. The reader needs it, but this puts it in context as a whole, so when the bits are dropped back in when needed (some are needed right away), the reader feels oriented instead of clueless.

      Plus, when I reread my own work, I don’t like to get bored.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    Also, this cost me a couple of painful weeks of my life – it’s craft, and I thought I knew what I was doing already – so I might as well get a blog post out of it. Might save someone else the loss of time.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          For an introvert, I’m pretty ‘out there’ on my blog.

          I posted PC1 a scene at a time – it helped in some undefinable way. I’m not doing it this time, and wouldn’t do major spoilers, but darn it, I had to work hard to figure this one out.

          Your vote is a no – I’ll see if there is a preponderance, and then mark it as a potential spoiler, if there is interest.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Catana

    I learned about the five Ws and the H early one, but it never occurred to me to apply them to fiction. Very good idea. By the way, It seems to me that some news sites aren’t paying much attention to them anymore, particularly when it comes to “where.” I’m forever hunting down locations, when all that’s offered is a town, but no state. In some cases, an article leaves the impression the action took place in the US until some contextual thing pops up as a clue and I realize it was in Africa or somewhere in Asia.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I think they do that on purpose – because you assume that it’s local, it gets your blood het up faster and higher – and you care about things in Thailand as if they were in your own back yard.

      Not that I don’t care about Thailand, but compassion fatigue is a real thing, and I just tune out. Whereas if it’s local, I may need to do something about it.



Comments welcome and valued. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.