Last time, I suggested that would-be fiction writers might consider using questions as the point de départ for their stories. I concentrated on ‘who’ and ‘where’ and surmised that, with just those two, it’s possible to create quite a complex, detailed structure. This time, ‘what’ and ‘how’, can take the complexity even further. So here’s Writing 101, part 2.
In order to illustrate the flexibility of ‘who’, I stressed that the answer might not be the expected human but an animal or even an inanimate object brought to life for the purposes of a story. The example I chose was a hapless mop and a bucket. Asking ‘who’ gave each of them a distinct identity with its associated characteristics which, in turn, might be developed further by answers to the other question, ‘where’. But if a bucket, mop or spittoon can be introduced as ‘who’, doesn’t that render ‘what’ superfluous?
‘What’ is priceless. For a start, it’s the key word in ‘What happened next?’ and ‘What if?’, both essential for writers desperate to hold the reader’s attention, but it also has its own mystery. ‘Who’ is inseparably linked with identity, ‘where’ with location. But ‘what’ can do anything. It’s unrestricted, free, a friend to turn to when the ink stops flowing (or the binaries stop doing whatever they do). Your mop hero hears a sound – what is it? The bucket sees an indistinct shape in the gloom – what is it? What’s the source of the mysterious glow under the sink? What’s in the head-shaped bundle of rags with that brownish stain on them? A tiny spaceship lands in the broom cupboard – what emerges from it? In the Vatican, the Scottish batsman (see link above) says to the Mother Superior ‘If the ball pitches outside the line of the leg stump or the contact between pad and ball is outside the line of either stump, then the batsman (or batsnun) is not out LBW even if the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps’. Her reply, inevitably, is ‘What?’.
When all the other questions fail to produce answers which nudge the story forward, ‘what’ will do the job.
We could say that the three previous interrogatives have generated content for the story:
characters, locations, objects and/or phenomena, but ‘how’ begins to draw them together, investigate their interactions. ‘How’ is where plots are born. When you have to explain how Chardonnay discovered that Henry was cheating on her sister’s room-mate’s best friend with a Latvian he’d met in the library, and how he reacted when the best friend told her publisher father how the dose of rohypnol got into the Latvian’s martini, you’re animating the characters and objects.
Better than that, you’re having to make them perform actions which are then interpreted by others around them (and the reader), and those interpretations give substance both to the character being observed and the one doing the observing. And, of course, if the character’s self-image and the observer’s perceptions of her are at odds, the plot spontaneously thickens.
Crime novels are particularly dependent on ‘how’ since, to put it crudely, they’re about how the killing happened and how it gets solved. But my guess is that anyone familiar with other popular genres could ‘reduce’ them to similar formulations. (NB Remember that this is Writing 101. More advanced students should consult the ever-relevant Principles of Literary Criticism by I. A. Richards or, perhaps, heed the words of Dr Seuss ‘No matter what you do, somebody always imputes meaning into your books’.)
That’s it for now, class. For your writing exercise this week I offer you a torque wrench, a newly-retired female banker, a black stain on the wall of her spare bedroom, a part-time fireman and a sealed casket. Attack them with who, where, what and how.
Next time, the final two: When? and most important of the lot, Why?