Writing: A Report vs a Story

DINFOS_Seal.pngThe core of my training and experience comes from my time as a military journalist.  At the Defense Information School, we were taught the “Five Ws and H,” way of approaching a news story. We were also taught something called the “Inverted Pyramid” style of structuring our stories. I now often find myself applying these methodologies to my fiction, and sometimes encourage writers I collaborate with to do the same.

First, let’s break it down a bit.  The five Ws and the H are broken down into: who, what, where, when, why, and how.  In journalism—especially military journalism—the focus seemed to be mostly on the first four.  If you could add the why and how, and still remain objective, you win the prize (M.L.S. Weech can correct me here as he teaches this stuff).

This way of thinking ensures the journalist, before they ever leave to cover the story, would remember to gather all the elements they needed to write a complete piece.  If the journalist could gather quotes from people talking about the why and how, even better.  This way of thinking organizes the journalists way of thinking.  Unlike fiction, the journalist may never get a second chance to ask the right questions to clarify their story.

Inverted Pyramid.jpgThe inverted pyramid is a means of organizing a story in order of importance.  I attached an image to illustrate this concept.  This does two things.  First, it ensures the most vital elements of the story are written first.  Secondly, it allows whoever is placing the news article into a newspaper, magazine, or periodical to have the flexibility to chop parts of the article away to fit it into the layout.  In essence, if they chop off the back-end of the news story it still delivers all of the pertinent information.

Transitioning this way of thinking to fiction isn’t too far-fetched.  Let’s start with the first concept.  We have to think of the “Five Ws and H,” in a different way.  Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writerwrote about this concept in an intuitive way.  The following excerpt is from this book on page 125.

Who becomes Character.
What becomes Action. (What happened.)
Where becomes Setting.
When become Chronology.
Why becomes Cause or Motive.
How becomes Process. (How it happened.)

Seeing it written out in this manner reveals the parallels in process between news and fiction writing.  Just like the journalist, the fiction writer must organize their piece and ensure they address most of the elements on this list.  When I do my first pass of a new manuscript, I mentally make notes of these elements as I see them.  If one element is missing, then the scene, chapter, or book will likely need some slight revision (not always).


A newsboy circa 1912. Pulled from the NY Digital Libraries.

The inverted pyramid, transitioned to fiction, is a way of quickly organizing the content of a chapter in order of importance.  Yes, some of the information is specific to news, but it can be easily adapted to fiction. Each chapter should be written, not just as a bridge to advance the story, but as a means of revealing information about the characters, conflicts, and world.  Horizon gazing (focusing on the end) in fiction betrays one of the most important elements to the reader: the journey.

I like that background information is listed at the bottom of the pyramid.  Over reliance on background information (information dumping) and world building (when it becomes a disease and not a tool) can cause readers to feel disconnected from the characters.  If this tool is used as a plotting device, the writer can pull elements of background and world building up and into the chapter and sprinkle them in as beats.  Seeing the chapter outlined in this way ensures the author hits all of the major points.

For those of you who are meticulous outliners, this is yet another tool for you to track and plot out your story.  For those renegade maverick, seat-of-the-pants types, you will save yourselves hours of revision by simply ensuring you are covering the Five Ws and H chapter by chapter (when applicable).  Sometimes pantsers hit the wall and all it takes is for them to quickly plot a chapter for them to regain momentum.  This method of plotting may be a solution.

question-markThat’s it for today!  I hope you found some useful information here.  What method of plotting do you all use?  Do you have a pregenerated template you work from, or do you simply scribble notes? I know many of you will be taking part in NaNoWriMo here in Novemeber; have you all started the process of outlining?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

19 responses

  1. I decided, since I kept getting frustrated at my insistence of having good ideas when in relatively inconvenient places, to download a mindmapping app. I currently have my WiP mind map that is evolving every day and an ideas mind map for anything that springs to mind. So for me, my pyramids seem to be spreading out from my central focuses. I’ve got my Ws and H on one branch, then all my background on another. (Yes, currently, my background is bigger than my character prong at the moment, but I’m working on that!)
    I love reading these posts and I’m fairly sure they make me a better writer. Thanks Corey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mind mapping program? That’s the kind of high-tech bamboozling I want to know more about! Excuse me while I go a on search engine bender to find out more information.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You were spot on with the why and how. In fact, I was just teaching students about forcing it. If the why and how don’t flow naturally in the lead, writers shouldn’t force them in. Nothing bogs down an effective lead like some random, confusing nonessential clause that would be stronger in another paragraph. It comes from the mistaken philosophy that the length and complexity of a sentence has more to do with its quality than the content.

    I have a plotting blog somewhere that I’ll post before too much longer. That will show how I tackle it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m glad you were able to confirm this. As I was writing I was pulling from some pretty old memories. I thought, “Hopefully Matt can set me straight if I mess this up.” Fortunately, I managed to dodge the bullet this time. I’m glad you teach at DINFOS, it’s nice to know someone of your skill level is training the future generation.

      I’m looking forward to seeing that blog post!

      Liked by 2 people

    • I often fall into the trap of long, complex sentences. A draw back of my history education and the need for academics to feel superior by being verbose. Then they can look down on all the “little people” and sneer! 😛 My poor editor…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I like this. The pyramid is simple and basic and it keeps everything important front and center. It is way too easy to give a character’s background too much precedence in a story, at the expense of what’s happening now.

    Since Crevlock Tower is heading toward the finish line, I’ve started a tentative outline for a new story. I will definitely be adding this pyramid–the version for fiction, as opposed to journalism–to it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad this resonated with you. Character background has been a hard one for me. Given my story happens 30 years AFTER the fall of United States, there is a lot of Drake backstory to contend with. I tried to focus on revealing only information that was relevant, but I imagine I will have to tidy up when I go back through next week with the rewrites.

      I’m really excited to hear you are outlining your next book. I predict…NY TIMES BEST SELLER! Don’t forget about little ol Corey when you strike it big 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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