Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Missing Question

If you have ever taken a nonfiction writing class, especially one in journalism, you'll be familiar with the five W's:  Who, What, Where, When, Why and, of course, good old How tacked onto the end.  There's even a Canadian news program called W5, a northern version of 60 Minutes.

Even fiction writers make use of the five W's:  Who is my character? What is the plot? Where is my story situated? When does this story take place? Why are my characters motivated to move through this story.  How do they resolve their crisis, fall in love, solve the murder?

But I think there's a W question missing.  Who Cares?

For the fiction writer this means making their characters human. We have to be able to empathise and relate to them. If we don't care what happens, why finish the story?  And of course motivation also helps us to care.  Why are our characters behaving as they do?  If their motivation is weak we risk the reader asking 'why are they doing this at all'?  Who cares?

I recently read a popular novel that was a virtual chase scene from beginning to end. It was quickly paced, the hero raced from one crisis to another from beginning to end.  But I kept being taken out the story because I couldn't understand his motivation. He was supposed to be a journalist on the track of a hot story, but why risk life and limb and the lives of his friends and family?  The story he was after, an interview with a washed up athlete, didn't justify all the dangerous shenanigans. We were never given enough information about the washed-up athlete to care.

When writing nonfiction, of course, the five W's are considered the holy grail.  If you are a reporter, you'd better get all those questions answered. The role of the editor is to ask, "Who cares?" Is this story interesting enough to deserve valuable column inches?

I try to keep this in mind as I research travel pieces, and web articles.  I was asked to write a piece not long ago about how to network successfully.  All the research I read covered the same ground: have a business card, go to seminars, attend meetings, ask questions, practise your small talk.  It all seemed rather obvious and I confess a bit boring.

I didn't get a handle on how I would write the piece until I asked myself, who cares?  Then it occurred to me that networking would be particularly difficult for natural introverts, and those who are shy.  This gave me the point of view I needed to write something slightly different and, I hope, more useful, than the standard article. Although I covered the basics, I slanted my ideas towards those who are shy, and made suggestions as to how they could overcome their natural tendencies to withdraw in social situations.

Since I've added Who Cares to my five W's list my writing has become a little tighter and more interesting, definitely a step in the right direction.

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