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By Britton Perelman · September 9, 2022
Growing up, teachers were constantly telling us that the stuff we were learning in school would be important later in life. They were downright lying to us when it came to things like the Pythagorean theorem, the 10 main types of clouds, and the definition of assonance. But way back in preschool or kindergarten, we all learned something that might just come in handy if you’ve grown up to be a writer: The 5 Ws.
Let’s go over what the 5 Ws are and how you can use them to write better scripts. Onward!
When we were little, we learned to rattle off these five questions without a second thought, but the 5 Ws are essential questions whose answers are essential for gathering basic information.
Who? What? When? Where? Why?
We’re taught to ask these questions at a young age to gather information and solve problems, and that thinking is continually reinforced throughout our formative years as we learn to communicate effectively.
Even as adults, though we may not be consciously employing the five Ws in our everyday lives, these questions are often the cornerstone of critical thinking. Just think about how many times a day you ask for clarification using a single W word.
The most important factor of the five Ws is that none of the questions can be answered with yes or no. Each question requires detail for its answer, which makes them a perfect tool for writers.
Maybe you’re struggling to get your next story off the ground. Maybe you can tell something is off in your latest draft, but can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Or maybe you just want to strengthen your screenwriting skill sets with some practice.
No matter what stage of the writing process you find yourself in, the five Ws are always meant to clarify your story. Each of the five questions asks something critical about your subject matter, and the more detailed you can get in your response, the better.
Now let’s take a look at the questions themselves.
This question is all about your protagonist. The main person. The hero.
But your answer to “Who is the story about?” shouldn’t just be a first and last name. Saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is about Indiana Jones tells us nothing about the protagonist himself. In fact, it’s probably better to say “an adventurous archeologist” than bother mentioning his name at all.
So, try to dig deeper. Who is the protagonist at their very core? What do they do for a living? What do they do for fun? How about likes and dislikes? Do they have any defining characteristics or personality quirks? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Once you’ve gotten to know the protagonist, ask the same questions for the other people in your story — the antagonists, love interests, mentors, allies, and all other supporting characters.
These two Ws can be tackled together because they both concern the same thing — setting. When and where does your story take place? Creating a convincing setting in your screenplay is a crucial part of storytelling.
Focus on location to answer “Where?” and time period to answer “When?” Then expand and get into the nitty-gritty — the physical locations, rooms, times of day, weather, and environments that make up the world of the story.
Yes, Death on the Nile obviously takes place “on the Nile,” but that doesn’t provide much information when it comes time to write your first slugline. So… get more specific.
EXT. GLAMOROUS STEAMBOAT, THE RIVER NILE — SUNSET
That’s a much more interesting place to begin than just “on the Nile.”
Keep in mind that different aspects of time and place will be more important depending on the story you’re telling.
Fleabag takes place in modern-day London, which isn’t especially unique in any noteworthy way. But honing in on the specifics of the story — the guinea pig-themed café Fleabag operates, the fact that the series starts after the deaths of both Boo and Fleabag’s mother — paints a much more vivid picture of the setting we’re dropped into when the story begins.
In story development, these two questions are critical for figuring out the exact point at which to start your story. Where and when does the story begin? Why does it start at that point in the story and not somewhere else?
Or, as I like to think of it — What’s up?
It sounds silly, but asking “What’s up?” actually gets to the heart of this W question really well because it should tell you everything you need to know about where someone’s story starts. For example…
What’s up with Ted Lasso?
Well, he’s an American who moves to England to lead a professional soccer (football) team even though he knows nothing about the game. His marriage is on the rocks, his players hate him, and his boss is secretly sabotaging him so that the team loses.
Notice how, even though we didn’t explicitly mention them in the above answer, the goal, the obstacles, and the stakes of the pilot of Ted Lasso are all inherent to the situation described.
This W question can take different forms, but the best way to think about it is in terms of the goal.
What does your protagonist want? What do they need? What does the protagonist have to achieve or accomplish? What obstacles or challenges are they dealing with? These questions are all a part of establishing your character’s goal as well as communicating what’s at stake if they don’t achieve it.
Answers to the various iterations of this “What” question can be multilayered.
At the beginning of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn just wants to make it through the day of her father’s party. Simple enough, right?
Well, her relationship with her daughter is tense, to say the least, her husband kinda sorta wants a divorce, there’s a customer downstairs who is super annoying, and this terrible IRS agent just won’t cut her some slack. And that’s before the multiverse even comes into play.
The point is that the “What” of Evelyn’s story morphs and shifts as it goes on. Could you say that the “What” of Everything Everywhere All At Once is Evelyn saving the world from total and utter destruction? Yes. Could you also say that the “What” of Everything Everywhere All At Once is Evelyn finishing her taxes? Yep, that works too. The truth is, it’s both.
Some stories have complicated, multilayered “Whats,” while others are relatively simple. As long as there’s some kind of “What,” whatever works for the story you’re telling is what you need!
The last W can be a doozy because there are so many ways to think about it.
First, let’s start in terms of character. Viewed through this lens, the “Why” is about stakes. Why does it matter if your protagonist succeeds or fails?
Depending on your story, the answer could be deeply personal or earth-shatteringly important. If your character is Iron Man, the fate of the universe might be at stake. But for Lady Bird McPherson, the only person affected by whether she gets into college in New York or not is herself.
“Why” can also help excavate different aspects of character.
Begin with a character and their goal and then start asking “Why?” Their true motivation will slowly appear the deeper you dig (or the more times you ask).
Or start with a certain plot point and question why the character chooses to do things in a certain way. If you do this with Lady Bird, for example, you’ll eventually discover that the titular character does things because she’s afraid of ending up like her mom. That kind of revelation can change the trajectory of a story or significantly alter the plot of your script.
But you can also consider “Why” in terms of the story itself.
Why does the story matter? Why should the audience care? In this way, “Why” is about theme. What does the story reveal about life and the human experience? What is the central theme of your story?
Really you can’t go wrong if you start asking “Why?”
There are a bunch of ways writers can use the five W questions — the best part is that, at their very core, they’re simple enough to be applied in many ways.
Try using the Five W Questions in one of these exercises or make up your own!
Start a new writing project by filling in the basics of the five Ws and then digging deeper. Feel free to leave certain Ws blank and come back to them as you flesh out the story.
Try to fill in the five Ws for a favorite movie or TV show (focus on the pilot episode for television). Challenge yourself to fill in as much detail as you can without rewatching. Or, for an even greater challenge, watch the trailer for a movie or show you haven’t seen and try to answer the five Ws. Then watch the whole thing to see if you’re right!
This exercise can be done for an existing movie or TV show, or for an idea you’re developing. Choose a single character and try to answer the five Ws according to their role in the story.
Edit the scenes in your current draft, paying attention to each W individually. Ask yourself questions like: “Who is leading the scene?” “Why does the scene begin here?” and “What does this scene set up next?”
Ask a friend to read the current draft of your script, then talk to them about the five Ws. Ask basic questions like: “Who is it about?” “When and Where does the story take place?” “What is the main character’s goal?” If they can’t adequately answer basic W questions, it will tell you what to focus on for your next round of revisions.
[Want More? Here are 10 super effective writing exercises that’ll help you finish your script!]
The five Ws are often followed by the *sometimes* H — How?
“How” is concerned entirely with plot, or, to put it simply, how the protagonist goes about getting whatever it is they want. It’s what the character does to reach their goal, the consequences, effects, and repercussions of those actions, and everything else in between.
Basically, the “How” is the story — it’s the who, what, when, where, and why all tied together with a bow.
Now you just have to start writing it.
Further Reading: Want to try a different storytelling tool? Find out how to use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in Your Screenplay!