This is the seventh of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

First off, sorry it’s been a few months. COVID-19 and all, I don’t think I need to explain more than that.

Put The W’s Together

Second, now that I’ve outlined the W’s, it’s time to put them all together. You can certainly do your own thing, but I usually take them in the order I set out above, Apparent Event, Actual Event, Environment, Character and Relationship, Conflict, and The Moment Before. THIS IS NOT A RULE. I can and do violate this order all the time.

But why suggest that order, then? Wouldn’t it be better to decide on the characters first? Or the actual event? I usually have a pretty decent idea of where I want the story to go, and I know the main character of the scene before I get to the W’s. Choosing the apparent event forces me to get creative, and will usually tell me who the other characters in the scene should be. Not every scene can be in a law office, right? Setting the apparent event constrains my choices for the rest of the W’s. Also, once you know your main characters, apparent events will present themselves to you almost unasked.

The actual event is the character or story element that needs to happen during that scene, which often (most every time?) has very little to do with the apparent event. But the character or story element happens to a character, which means it will happen in that character’s context – apparent event and environment – which kind of drives the details of the actual event.

Conflict is often the most difficult part of this to define, though it might not seem so at first. If you only think of conflict as a fist fight, you’re getting it all wrong. Sure, there can be a fist fight, but that would probably be an apparent event with a huge subtext for the actual event. The conflict is internal to the characters, usually, sometimes external. But you don’t want it to be trite or on-the-nose. No black knights blocking the bridge into the abandoned castle, please. How about a lovely peasant girl inviting the knight to cross the bridge? Would you trust her? Why not?

The other three elements follow once you have the apparent event, actual event, and conflict. The environment is determined largely by the apparent event, and once you get into the story, the character and moment before are set already, for the most part.

What Does It Look Like On The Page?

I’ll share a bit of my work in progress below. It’s how I plot out my stories using the W’s.

Remember, for a regular novel you have about 70,000 to 90,000 words, which seems like a lot until your first draft has 125,000 words and you have to cut it by a third. A novel is going to have between 60 and 80 scenes, which again seems like a lot but is actually nearly nothing once you get into it. You need to be economical, you need to work smart, you need to know what you’re doing before you start writing. You do that by using the W’s.

An image of a scene breakdown for my current work in progress:

I tried not to give too many spoilers, since this novel is a sequel to ‘The Guilty Die Twice,’ but you can see how I work. I don’t have the characters listed with the other W’s, I have them at the header of the scene so I can tell at a glance who is getting the focus. Later on I may have to rearrange things, and having the characters up top makes that easier. Then I have notes to myself on the scene, including possibilities for later scenes, and then the W’s nicely outlined.

Give It A Shot

Feel free to take this advice and make it your own. Recall that I came to this method as an actor and adapted it to my writing. My acting teacher gave all her students a business card with the W’s on it, and I have that card to this day, I’m looking at it right now because it stays on my desk centered beneath my computer monitor, where I can see it every time I write.

Good luck! Let me know how it works out for you.

This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

This is the fifth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Is The Obstacle? – Conflict

Every scene needs conflict, otherwise, why spend your precious word count on it? But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what, exactly, conflict is. Does it mean a fistfight? Well… obviously. But every scene can’t have a fistfight, unless it’s one of the Fast and Furious movies.

Think of ‘conflict’ as something that stands between the hero and her goals for that scene. Let’s remember that there’s always an Actual event for your main characters, something they want to achieve, a goal they need to reach. The conflict is something that prevents them from reaching that goal.

If you want to take a third-grade understanding of this, the obstacle is a physical thing. An actual barrier. If you’re writing an adventure story then a physical barrier is a real possibility. That big rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re writing a story about star-crossed lovers, however, the obstacle is almost never going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. The boy is forbidden by his parents from seeing the girl, who is herself torn between the safe choice and the boy. The path of true love never runs straight.

The Obstacle Can Be Another W

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. We have the hero who intends to tell her ex-husband she’s taking their son across country. Why can’t she just come up and tell him? Tear the band-aid off, metaphorically speaking?

Good question. If a dilemma could be solved by people simply talking, the world would be a much nicer place. But it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting. In our hero’s case, the obstacle – the conflict – could be that she’s done this before. Maybe she did it a few years ago, and faced legal repercussions because of it. Or maybe the obstacle is that her husband is an angry control freak, and she knows that when she tells him she’s leaving, he’s going to marshal all his considerable resources to stop her. Or maybe the obstacle is the son himself, who learns of his mother’s intentions and tells his father he doesn’t want to go before the hero can.

In all these cases, it’s the Character and Relationship that provide the conflict.

Conflict Should Be Resolved, Not Necessarily Overcome

The hero doesn’t need to physically conquer every obstacle. A story like that quickly becomes boring. Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He didn’t conquer that rolling boulder, he didn’t stop it, he didn’t divert it, he didn’t step out of its way. He ran. As fast and as far as he could until he got out of the cave and the boulder rolled away somewhere harmless. He didn’t overcome that boulder, he out-ran it.

The same principle applies to more metaphorical challenges. In our birthday party example, say the son tells his father what the hero – his mother – intends. So what’s our hero going to do about that? Stand and fight? Face off against her ex-husband who has far more cash and friends in high places? No, she’s going to thinks sideways. Maybe she’ll just up and leave anyway and take the boy with her. Or maybe she’ll pretend to go on a road trip, which is really her absconding. Which, of course, creates an entirely new obstacle for her to overcome.

However you do it, you need to resolve the conflicts you set up. This is the pay-off for the set-up. It doesn’t have to be smooth, or elegant, or even pleasant. But it has to work with the other Ws.

This is the fourth of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Who Are You? – Character and Relationship

We’re over halfway through the process of constructing a scene and now we get to the characters. About time. When going through this exercise as an actor, you really only have to worry about your own character. When you’re a writer, you get to worry about all of them.

I could (and probably will) spend a lot of time on constructing a character and how best to do that, but for our purposes here, let’s assume you’ve done that work. You know your character, her flaws, her aspirations, her habits, her quirks, and what she does and does not know about herself. Now you have to take that character – or those characters – and place them in the scene you’ve created using the first three of the Ws.

Sticking with the birthday party example, let’s say the hero is at a birthday party for her son at her ex-husband’s house. The apparent event is the birthday party, the actual event is she intends to tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country and taking the son with her, the environment is her ex-husband’s house, not a friendly environment for her.

Now what? You put the characters in that situation. Let’s say the hero is not good at conflict at all, but has resolved that this discussion has to happen this day, at this time, before she loses her nerve.

Can you feel the tension building? The situation is set to explode.

The Setting Changes Characters’ Relationships

This seems simple enough, but too often I see characters whose relationship seems equal on both sides all the time, and that just never, ever happens in real life. There’s always a power dynamic, and that balance shifts over time, or even over an afternoon, and especially when they have a change in venue.

Here’s a concrete example: you have characters who work at a restaurant, where one is the manager and one is a waiter. There’s a power dynamic there, boss/subordinate. No matter how friendly they are with one another, Jeff is the boss and Mike is the employee.

Now switch the location. Move Jeff and Mike to, say, a seedy pool hall. Mike comes here every Friday night after his shift, he knows the people, he’s one of them. Jeff is a newcomer, sticks out like a sore thumb, and – God forbid – is still wearing his restaurant manager’s tie. Who’s the boss in this situation?

Same characters, but their relationship, and thus their interaction, changes with a simple trip a couple of blocks away.

The Scene Can Change The Relationship

As a matter of fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every scene should alter the relationship between its main characters. That’s not to say it has to be a positive change, but if there’s no tension to resolve there’s no movement in the plot and there’s no growth in the characters.

Back to the birthday example. The hero is at her son’s birthday party at her ex-husband’s house, where she’s going to tell him that she’s moving away. As the hero works up her courage to have the conversation, her ex-husband surprises her by confessing that he’s not over her and asks if, maybe, they could give it one more try. With a few words the ex-husband has completely changed the tenor of the scene, and subverted the hero’s intentions.

Does the hero stick to her guns and tell him she’s leaving? Does she back down? How is she going to deal with this surprise?

You tell me, you’re the writer.

This is the third of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Where Are You? – The Environment

The environment for the scene is the set dressing. This includes the stuff your characters can touch, like tables, chairs, rocket ships, guns, salad forks, powdered wigs, piles of severed limbs, etc. etc. etc.

The environment also includes the stuff your character can’t touch, like the wind, or darkness, or humidity. Or the seething emotion of a crowd about to turn into a mob. Or the gentle, welcoming smile of a grandmother.

In our birthday party example, your character probably is going to see a cake, some decorations, maybe some presents, and other people gathered around. But a birthday party in a bowling alley is going to have a very different environment than one on a billionaire’s yacht. Think about the fixtures and furniture you’d see in each place, aside from the cake and presents. Think about the people in attendance. It’s the same event (ostensibly) but the environments are completely different.

Story Drives The Environment

If your story is a hard-boiled noir, the hero probably won’t be seeing any androids or Jetsons-style moving sidewalks. By the same token, if your story is a high fantasy, your hero probably won’t be watching TV or driving a car.

Your story will have tropes, it’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that tropes are necessarily bad. Used properly, they can give your reader something to latch onto, a familiar entry point. A lonely lakehouse, for example, would be right at home in a romance. It could also be the setting for a horror tale. The rest of the environment fills in the story. A romance would have sweet carvings of initials on the boathouse; a horror story would have a charnal-smelling basement where muffled screams echo at night.

The story you want to tell will determine your environment.

Environment Drives The Story

And yet… as you move along in your story, the environment has a lot to say about the direction your characters might take.

In our birthday party example, aside from the cake, candles, presents, and attendees, the event takes place at a Roaring-20s Gatsby mansion. So there are idle rich, and servants, and opulent appointments, and maybe a live jazz band. And maybe your hero hates her party and hates everyone there, but somehow finds a kindred spirit in the hip, dropout drum player from the band.

Well, now there’s a story. Rich socialite, grubby jazz musician, 1925, too much champagne, negligently unguarded revolvers… the environment has just moved the plot along.

Put The First Three Together

When you determine the apparent event for your characters, the actual event, and the environment, you’re well on your way to constructing a good, meaty scene.

Only three more Ws to go.

This is the first of a 6-part series on the W’s. This is a foundational tool I learned as an actor that’s become my go-to as a writer. I use the Ws for every scene I write, every time.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

WHAT Is Happening? – Apparent Event

The Apparent Event is not the set dressing. That’s the Environment. The Apparent Event is what someone looking through a keyhole might see going on; what’s happening in a very broad and obvious sense.

For example: a birthday party. To Western eyes, at least, every birthday party follows a certain pattern. Just think of all the YouTube videos you’ve seen of a birthday party: if you turn off the sound, the scene could be set anywhere in the world, there’s nothing unique about candles on a birthday cake to tell you where in the world that party’s taking place.

Another example: bad news in a doctor’s office. Same thing, if you turn off the sound on any bad-news scene, you can still tell immediately what’s going on. Doctor comes in, hesitates, patients looks on with hope until she realizes that the doctor’s not going to have good news. Shake of the head, sincere look, tears.

A third example: being called into your boss’s office. The worker’s at his desk. The boss appears over his shoulder. Some brief words. The boss returns to her office. The worker hesitates – is it good news or bad? – then follows.

The Apparent Event Grounds The Action

When you set the apparent event – and all scenes must have an apparent event – you immediately have a handle on what’s taking place. You can then move your characters around inside that event as you see fit.

If the scene’s at a birthday party, for instance, you know the beats of that process. Your character will (probably) know the beats of that process too. They’ll react to what’s going on according to the other Ws – see the list above – and to their own nature. Do they hate birthday parties? Love them? Resent the people attending?

You Can Subvert The Apparent Event

What does this mean? Sticking with the birthday party example, suppose you follow the regular beats of a birthday party, but we find out the birthday ‘cake’ is a vegetable concoction instead of devil’s food chocolate. And suppose your main character only discovers the old switcheroo when she’s handed a piece of the broccoli-beet cake.

In that example, your apparent event has changed from ‘birthday party’ to ‘terrible birthday party the main character never expected.’ We’re still not into the actual event, or even the environment (aside from the specific about the cake), we’ve just subverted the audience’s expectation of what the event really is. This is perfectly acceptable. Just not every time.