June 13, 2023

How Can We Define Our Story’s Essence?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring how we can use a technique from journalism writing (the 5W1H questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how) to discover our story’s essence. We’ll learn how focusing on specific questions—like how reporters focus on the 5W1H questions—can help us see the big picture of our overall story, plot, and theme. Let’s take a look…

Recap: Story vs. Plot vs. Theme

At a basic level, stories in the Western storytelling tradition usually focus on a struggle to overcome a story problem, while the plot element of a story consists of events that force the choices and changes along that journey-of-overcoming. That’s why we can change up our plot events (such as what plot event we use to introduce our protagonist) and the story itself can remain the same.

Do you know how our story and our plot are different and separate? Click To Tweet

When it comes to themes, if we don’t draft with a theme in mind, we might discover it only after reaching the end of our story. There’s nothing wrong with that approach—and in fact, that’s how many of us write—as long as we step back after reaching “The End” to see our story’s big picture. That way we can layer in hints of our theme during our editing phase. If we fail to take that step to recognize our story’s themes, we’re more likely to end up with unintended themes, as our plot events or character choices may undermine our intended message.

I’ve written many times before about stories, plots, and themes:

If you’re not sure how our story is more than just our plot, or how a theme ties into our story premise, character arcs, plot arc, etc., feel free to check out those posts above for more information.

Writing Lessons Can Be Found Everywhere

I started thinking about this post’s topic when I recently “rediscovered” the science-fiction political intrigue TV series, Babylon 5. I’d loved the show during its initial run from 1993-1998, but until I found it on the free Tubi (and Roku) streaming networks a few months ago, I’d forgotten how great it was.

I’ve always been a fan of the science-fiction genre, but the show is unlike typical sci-fi TV, especially of that era. At the time, it was called “science fiction for adults,” as it’s less about space battles and more about the politics of a United-Nations-like gathering of alien races after a near-extinction-level war. Now that I’m a writer, I’m enjoying the show more than ever, as I can appreciate the concept driving its production more than I could back then.

Do you have any favorite TV shows that you love or appreciate especially because you're a writer? Click To Tweet

Babylon 5 was one of the very first shows to have a planned arc, designed from the beginning to run for five years with specific plot and story arc points in mind. (And despite network complications interfering with the original plan for season five, it’s still one of the best examples of executing a planned story arc on a TV series.) The show knew where it was going from the beginning and actually followed through on that plan. (*side-eyes Lost and Game of Thrones and…*)

In a record that still stands, the executive producer/showrunner/writer, J. Michael Straczynski, wrote every episode of seasons three and four (and over 90 of the 110 episodes in all). The show had no “writers room,” as it was JMS’s singular vision. He wanted to bring the structure of a novel to TV, so the entire 5-year arc plays out like a novel, with a planned beginning, middle, and end.

Of course the reality of TV production made the concept difficult to execute perfectly, including actors leaving, having medical issues, etc. The fact that JMS took many of those issues and used them to make the story even better is something that I appreciate so much more now as a writer. Like every other TV show in existence, it’s not a flawless show (a handful of episodes are clunkers, the fourth season is rushed and the fifth season a bit disjointed due to their broadcast network failing and the show moving to cable, and so on), but it aimed for the stars and executed the vast majority of what it set out to do.

The foreshadowing and epic nature of the story and character arcs are unmatched, especially in seasons 2-4. Every rewatch of the series reveals more layers of foreshadowing, with events of season three hinted at in season one, etc. In other words, if you’ve never watched Babylon 5, I highly recommend the show and will keep this post free of spoilers.

Pointed Questions Can Define Us

One of the themes of the series’ five-year arc was alluded to by the show’s worldbuilding. In the show, the most-advanced alien races are each “defined” by a single question, which then shaped their ideology.

Taking all the advanced alien races into consideration together, these questions are:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you want?
  • Why are you here? (What do you have to live for?)

Those seem like pretty basic questions, but each race ended up with wildly divergent cultures and priorities, depending on “their” question. The less-advanced alien races were then influenced by which question and ideology they were “mentored” by. These differences led to some fascinating themes.

How can specific questions help define our story's essence? Click To Tweet

For example, if someone defines “what they want” before figuring out “who they are,” the results can be destructive and/or lead to a selfish path, as they have no boundaries for how far they’d be willing to go to get what they want. A singular focus on a goal without considering the cons, morals, or laws involved can lead to an “the end justifies the means” attitude, no matter the cost.

On the other hand, trying to define “who you are” without any thought of goals (priorities, hopes, wishes, etc.) is near-impossible. Many of us would probably first answer that question with career or relationship titles, which inherently hinge on “achievements.” At the same time, a singular focus on a defining label for who we are can blind us to ways that label might not be a good fit or might prompt us to act in ways against what we want, simply to fit in with the monolithic label.

On the show, the question of “why are you here?” is presented as a middle ground, one that prompts a consideration of the greater good or bigger picture when answering the other questions posed. This question touches on our purpose or reason for living, which could be used as “guardrails” to prevent the negative extremes of the other questions.

The ability of the right kind of specific questions to define a whole alien culture (or us) got me thinking about how we could tweak basic questions to help us define the essence of our story…

Pointed Questions Can Define Our Story

Journalism students are taught to focus on a 5W1H structure. Within the first few paragraphs of a news article, reporters should answer the questions of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Fiction authors can tweak that approach of answering specific questions in an attempt to better understand our story.

However, just like how the last “why are you here?” question in the show Babylon 5 was meant to illuminate the bigger picture better than the other questions, some questions will be more helpful than others for identifying the bigger picture of our story, plot, and theme. Questions along the lines of the journalistic when? and where? may tell us about pieces of our story, but it takes a certain kind of question to see the big picture and understand how the pieces fit together.

  • For our story, we want to know both the “who” and the “what” that defines the story problem our characters are struggling to overcome.
  • For our plot, we want to know “how” the plot events fit together and create those choices and changes that move our story forward.
  • For our theme, we want to know the “why” lurking in the story’s subtext that gives meaning to our characters’ journeys and choices, as well as to our reason for writing the story.

Believe it or not, in most stories, a few pointed questions can define all those essential elements of our story. In turn, better understanding our story’s essence might help us in revisions, editing, synopsis writing, querying, marketing, etc., as we have a much clearer idea of what we’re trying to say and why.

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Story vs. Plot vs. Theme: Know Your 5Ws and H

Now let’s visit my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about this topic, including:

  • how our story differs from our plot
  • specific questions we can use to define our story
  • 2 optional questions used by some stories or genres
  • specific questions to define our plot (and why we don’t need others)
  • why our story’s theme is more than just a noun or phrase
  • specific questions we can use to define our story’s theme

Depending on the unique attributes of our story (or how our brain works), we might need to tweak the basic questions presented in the guest post, but hopefully they’ll give us an idea of how to use questions to discover and explore our story’s essence. With that knowledge of our story, we’ll then have a better idea of what to emphasize in our edits or marketing, making the story we present to others closer to the story we intended to tell. *smile*

Do you struggle to identify your story’s essence or big picture? Were you familiar with the journalism approach of 5W1H? Have you ever watched Babylon 5, and if so, do you share (or at least understand) my appreciation? Are there other shows that you especially enjoy or appreciate due to being a writer? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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