Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 09/22/2022

Episode 24: Building a Plot with Five Questions

By G. Glenwood Clark. Originally published in the September, 1920 Issue of The Writer's Monthly.

Despite the varying definitions of the text books, every student of fiction writing has a general idea of plot. In building his story foundations he knows he must have complication, crisis, climax and denouement. Yet, notwithstanding his familiarity with all its technical parts, the student-writer frequently has trouble in building up convincing plot-structures. His feeling for fiction and his eye for the dramatic tell him there is a story in such and such a situation and such and such a person of his acquaintance, yet he cannot extract the plot-values from his material. A situation or a person cannot be bodily lifted and stuck into a story, else that very “stuck-in-ness” reveals itself and the fiction becomes wooden and uninteresting. How, then, is a writer, having a plot germ, to make it yield up its fictional values and enable him to construct a sound story-structure?

To extract the true from the false in any general mass of "information," the question-and-answer method has long been popular. To this day it is the procedure used in our law courts to elicit “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” from the witnesses called before them. To realize the terrible efficiency of this engine of information one has only to observe a skillful cross-examiner at work in a modem courtroom. Under his manipulation of questions, both direct and indirect, the truth of the matter sooner or later emerges, however loath the witness be to reveal it.

When a given bit of story-material refuses voluntarily to give up its plot possibilities the writer must use some engine to extract the information he needs. And the most effective device for this purpose is this same machine of question and answer. Under direct and searching questioning the idea, situation or character must reveal its plot-values, and if it yields matter of worth the material can be woven into a finished plot. Enter, then, the Five Plot Questions: Who, What, Why, When and Where.

Every plot must have a situation, actors, motivation, a setting, and must happen at some time, either past, present or future. And it is the office of the Five Plot Interrogatives to elicit all this information.

The first question, “What,” should disclose the action or at least the initial incident. As soon as one incident is obtained, the succeeding can usually be glimpsed by demanding of the first, “What effect did you have?” and thus gradually build up a series of happenings, grouped in some sort of climacteric arrangement. Furthermore, a judicious and persevering attempt to discover “What” happened will sooner or later bring to light another vital matter for the writer: “What caused an incident?” Having in hand a given incident and its cause, the author has two very important items and out of them can evolve the incidents needed for sound plot-structure.

If the plot-seed be a situation, “What” should first be applied to clarify and bring out in clear relief the central incident around which the developing and contributory incidents will later be grouped. If, however, the writer has taken as his fertilizing germ a character-conception, he answers his second question, “Who,” first and, getting his main actor, has only to apply the remaining four interrogatives to arrive at his plot-material. But even after the main character has emerged from his enveloping germ-covering, there is still work for “Who.” The main actor in a story seldom works out his problem alone and unhindered. Minor personages play parts in the drama: “Who” aids the hero and “Who” are his enemies, struggling to defeat him? By relentless application of this “Who” the writer will soon line up all his story-people and, knowing already his series of happenings, can easily assign them their roles.

The next task is to find motives actuating the story-people. Since they are human, they are rational beings and must have motives for their actions. The story should picture some human will struggling to obtain a given end for a given purpose. Hence the third plot-interrogative, “Why,” exists solely to disclose the motivation. This question should be asked in turn of every actor in the story and in answering it the author should devise motives that are adequate, plausible and consistent with the characters of his people.

The remaining two plot-interrogatives are important, but are more easily answered than the three already considered. A story must take place at some period of time, and the situation, the characters, or the setting will usually determine the answer to the “When” in advance. If the main incident of the story is concerned with an aeroplane the story could not be laid in the middle of the eighteenth century, but must, of necessity, take place at the present time or within a close future. If, like Stevenson in “A Lodging for the Night,” the author wishes to portray a real character in a fictional frame, he must set his story in that character’s day, be it in mediaeval France, ancient Rome or colonial Virginia. Unless limited by some such cause, the writer may assign his story to any period he chooses.

So, also, with setting. Certain incidents require a special locale, as for instance, the sea or a tiny inland village. Certain characters can exist only in a given locality, but unless the incident or the characters demand a specialized setting, the author is free to answer the fifth question, “Where,” by locating his story-scene wheresoever he please, the only limitation in such case being his knowledge of the locality he wishes to use.

By a persevering use of these five questions, “What,” “Who,” “Why,” “When” and “Where,” the fictionist can extract all the vital information from any plot-germ he may desire to develop. Sometimes a germ is so fertile that it will supply from itself answers to the whole quintet, but usually the writer must draw upon his entire body of experience, knowledge, and a number of germs before he can obtain satisfactory answers to his five questions. Then, when the master interrogatives are answered, he will have at his disposal all the matter required for constructing an interesting plot.

In discussing the structure and use of any machine, whether it be a device for extracting stones from cherries or fiction-values from story-germs, a paragraph of illustration is worth more than a volume of abstract exposition. Let us apply our plot-extracting machine to a specific germ and see how it works. We will use as our starting point a short newspaper clipping announcing the loss of an overdue ship from Africa. Here is a situation of interest, for the ship-of-mystery theme is always appealing. The clipping has given us an initial situation, and we are prepared to apply our first question, “What,” in an effort to uncover further information. “What caused the ship’s loss?” A storm at sea is hackneyed, though it does offer excellent struggle-elements, but it is providential, a creation of chance. The story should, if possible, picture the human will in conflict to achieve its desires or to ward off its dangers, so the writer decides to answer his first question by causing the ship to disappear through human agency.

With this decision the way is naturally prepared for the second interrogative: “Who was the human agent?” Aboard a ship there are, after ignoring possible passengers, but two classes of people, the officers and the crew. The captain would hardly be implicated in his ship’s loss, as duty would make him struggle to bring it safely into port. The same would hold true of the subordinate officers, though at a pinch they might be drawn into a conspiracy to destroy the vessel. But the crew? Might there not be some one in that motley collection who had good cause for destroying the ship and its cargo? Still pressing his “Who” for answer, there emerges into the fictionist’s consciousness the figure of one of the crew, a massive, strong and unscrupulous character who, through guile and brute force, bends the crew to his purposes. He, then, will be the principal character around whom will revolve all the action of the story. Other actors can be devised to aid or hinder him.

The writer now has definitely before him the disappearance of a ship through the plotting of a single adventurer who persuades the crew to rise against their officers and take control of the vessel. One vital plot-element has emerged; the struggle. There will be a struggle between the villain-hero and the crew; successful in moulding them to his purpose, there is a further problem of overcoming the officers and assuming mastery of the ship. Seen dimly ahead is the possibility of the officers regaining their liberty, renewing the fight and reasserting themselves as masters of the vessel.

So far so good. The fictionist turns to his next interrogative “Why.” What was the motive actuating the villain-hero? Revenge? What wrong had he suffered that he should mutiny and persuade the crew to follow him? Whatever motive he employed, it will have to operate among all the sailors to induce them to join the ringleader in seizing the ship.

For the moment, the revenge-motive is abandoned and the writer applies his “Why” again. Love in such a connection is improbable, but in the mind arises the idea of greed. “Why did greed operate?” Suddenly the author remembers that the love of money is almost universal. Very well, then, the ship will have a cargo of money, an exceptionally large one, and the villain urges the crew to mutiny and steal it. But another “Why” strikes the fictionist: “Why was the money aboard?” One motivation is not enough; each step in the whole series of actions embodied in the plot must be adequately motivated if the story is to hang together and form a convincing whole. When at his wits’ end, the harassed writer recalls the large numbers of ships sunk by German submarines during the late war and the numerous expeditions sent out to salvage them. In a flash he sees the solution; he will send his ship to raise a submarined treasure vessel. The plot now outlines itself beautifully; the ship, laden with the salvaged silver, is on its return to the home port when the villain incites the crew to seize the ship and divide the plunder among themselves.

The three interrogatives, “What,” “Who” and “Why,” have given the elements of the actual plot There remain “When” and “Where.” Of necessity the “When” will be the present, and the “Where,” or at least the major portion of it, will be aboard the vessel on the high seas. Thus by applying his five plot-interrogatives the fictionist has obtained the situation, the actors, the motives, the setting and the time of his story. The situation and the characters have disclosed the various struggle-elements, which will open up still more upon further applications of “What,” “Who” and “Why." Having all his material, the weaving of the threads into a plot is now a comparatively easy matter.

By actual experiment, this battery of five interrogatives has proven its worth. For a young writer there is no better practice than the use of this information-extractor on every plot-germ he comes across. By such procedure he will soon possess a large and varied mass of plot-material for transformation into complete stories.