This topic was suggested by my friend Buck Creacy.
Do you remember, in maybe fifth grade writing class, when your teacher told you that all essays needed to answer six crucial questions? Storytelling is no different. The six crucial questions, five w’s plus one h, give you and your listeners the basic information required by most stories. Bear in mind, simply answering these questions will not make the story a great one, but it will give you a foundation to build on.
- Who. Who is your story about? What are their characteristics? If the story is about a girl, make it about a specific girl. Make it about the girl who sat three rows ahead of you in class, the one who always wore the same ribbon in her hair, the ribbon that got dingier over the year. The girl who didn’t come back to class after the class queen bee stole it from her. Make your who specific. We want to know what happened to that girl with the ribbon. If it was only about a girl we wouldn’t really care. What’s more, you can use one who to lead to another. I never knew what happened to her but I always wished I had stepped in.
- What. What happens matters. Decide what the girl cares about. She cares about the ribbon. The ribbon is stolen. What happens next? What is the actin that moves your narrative forward.
- Where. Stories need to live in a place. The more carefully you paint the place, the more easily your listeners can go there. Use all of your senses, not just vision. What is carved into the wooden desktop? What does the classroom smell like? What does the light look like just before the ribbon is stolen? If this story is from your life, or if you want it to have a real world setting, give that to us. Where is more than physical space, it’s setting and mood.
- When. This encompasses not only literal time, but emotional and personal time. When I was in third grade. When the world was young. Between the wars. Each when places you and your listeners in a time and provides context. Oh, this is a creation story. Oh, this is a personal story. Oh, this is a…
- Why. The motivation, the drive, the cause for the action. This can be tricky, because you may want to leave some of this shrouded in mystery or even entirely unexplained, but you need to provide enough explanation that the audience can connect to the actions in the story. The wolf is wicked and hungry. The queen bee is acting upon her nature, preying upon the weak. The girl with the ribbon… well, that might be a place to leave enough white space for the imagination to run wild. The speaker who didn’t intervene was afraid, becoming the character we all know in our secret hearts. The why gives the listeners something to latch onto and identify with.
- How. How brings everything together. How did the who commit the what? What’s more, how gives you an opportunity to pain a clearer picture - how did the girl’s face change when she saw the ribbon dangling from the queen bee’s fingers? How did you feel when you just watched?
Using these basic questions will help your stories be deeper and more interesting for your audience. They will help you show, rather than tell, details about your world. They will give you opportunity to decide where you want to insert white space and where you want detail, reminding you that what you say and how you say it matters.
One story two ways.
When I was young, I remember there was a girl in my class who clearly didn’t have much money. Her name was Frannie. She wore the same clothing most of the time and always had the same ribbon in her hair. One day Justine, the class bully, stole the ribbon from her when the teacher was out of the class. Frannie cried and screamed until she could barely breathe. I think she was sent to the nurse’s office by the hall monitor who ran in, while Justine pranced around with the ribbon. I just stood there and watched. The teacher took the ribbon and put in her desk. But we didn’t see Frannie again. I wonder what happened to her.
I was a pretty shy kid, especially in middle school. I remember my fifth grade class seemed like it was full of yelling and spit balls. I pretty much kept to myself and drew with my scented magic markers, they were all the rage then. A few rows in front of me was Frannie. I was grateful to her, because she was the reason I could be invisible. She was poor. Her clothing smelled because she didn’t wash it often enough. She always wore her hair the same way, tied back with a greasy red ribbon and, in fifth grade when fashion was starting to count, this was her biggest sin. She would rub its soft sheen against her cheek, staining it darker each day.
One afternoon the teacher told us all to be quiet while she went to talk to the principal. Most of were. Most, except for Justine and her clique of Bonnie Bell wearing friends. They surrounded Frannie and began commenting on her clothing as if she weren’t there. “Did you see what that smelly girl had on the other day?” I remember thinking someone should do something, make them stop, but I wasn’t that someone. I guess everyone was thinking that. Frannie didn’t do anything, just sank down into her chair a little more.
Then Justine snatched the ribbon from Frannie’s hair. “Look, I have a snot rag from her hair!” She held it between two fingers, high above Frannie’s head. Frannie began to scream then, a high wail. I’d never heard grief like that before. I don’t think I’ve heard it since. Justine and her girls began to laugh while Frannie screamed louder, her face the color the ribbon might once have been. A grown-up came rushing in. Justine ran back to her seat, holding the ribbon in the air like a flag the whole time. Frannie kept screaming. The adult tried to calm her down, but her scream didn’t stop. I didn’t know how she could breathe.
Eventually the room was full of adults. Someone picked Frannie up and carried her, like a portable siren, out of the room. Someone said something about a nurse. Our teacher took the ribbon from Justine without saying anything, put it into her desk drawer, locked it, and tried to teach us the capitals of Europe, though no one was really paying attention. Justine couldn’t stop giggling.
Frannie didn’t come back to our classroom, not that afternoon or that week or that school year. I wondered why none of us said anything. I wondered where she was. I wondered what happened to her ribbon. Did it stay in the desk drawer all that time, hiding so no one could see it? Did the teacher cover it with papers so she wouldn’t remember? Did it go someplace where stains don't matter and it's only the soft satin that counts?