Conceptualising a story idea with the 5W1H method

There are many different ways in which a writer may conceptualise a story idea, and half the time we don’t even realise we’re doing it. But in this post I share one method of bringing order to the chaos…by asking yourself six key questions about your story concept! →

Anyone who has ever planned—and written—a story will know that planning consists of many stages: from early development, to plotting, right through to creating a detailed outline if that’s how you like to roll. But at the end of the day, all stories start in the very same place: with an idea. How, then, does a writer take that idea from something little more than a spark to a story concept from which more detailed planning can occur? This is what I think of as the “conceptualisation” phase of a writing project.

There are many different ways in which a writer may conceptualise a story idea. Half the time, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. In the past, I’ve just word-vomited an idea all over a page and somehow cobbled together a concept from there. But while conceptualising an idea for a new WIP last month, I decided to create some order in the usually-chaotic process by asking myself six key questions in what I’ve called the “5W1H method”. It worked exceptionally well, so today I’m going to tell you all about it. I’d love to know what you think!

WHO are the key players?

This question is all about CHARACTERS. Since the majority of my stories ideas come to me in the form of characters, it makes sense for me to ask myself this one first.

  • Identify the “key players”, which obviously include the main character(s), but may also be any secondary characters who have significant roles.
  • Write a sentence or two about each of the players, describing any notable characteristics or traits as well as their motivations in the story.

WHAT is the story about?

This question is all about THE PLOT. If you’re a writer whose ideas usually come to them in the form of the main story line, then I’d advise you ask yourself this one first.

  • Determine the “story problem” and consider what actions your characters are likely to take to solve it. This can then be fleshed out after more detailed planning.
  • Write and sentence or two that articulates what the story is about, at its heart. I like to think of this as kind of like an “elevator pitch” for the story.

WHEN is the story set?

This question is all about the TIMELINE. Considerations under this heading will largely depend on genre and setting, but at a minimum it’s worth thinking about the following.

  • In what era is the story set? Does it take place in contemporary / modern times, or at another point in history? Obviously high fantasy settings will have different considerations.
  • Over what time period does the story take place? Does the entire plot unfold over the course of a few days? A few months? Multiple years? Longer?

WHERE is the story set?

This question is all about SETTING. Again, the genre will play a significant part in conceptualising your story’s setting, but either way world-building is an important element.

  • For stories set in our world, in what country does the story take place? Specifically what city / village / geographic location?
  • For stories set in another world, identify some of the world’s key features and what differentiates it from other second-world settings.

WHY are you writing this story?

This question is all about THEMES. While themes can often develop during the writing process, it is definitely important to think about why you have chosen to write this story above all others.

  • Identify what issues you would like the readers of your story to consider. At this point of the process, try to focus on the key messages you want to get across.
  • Determine what emotions you intend for your reader to feel by the end of the story. This will help with setting the overall mood and tone of your writing.

HOW will the story be written?

This question is all about STYLE. Stories can be told in all sorts of different styles and with all sorts of different techniques, but at a minimum you should think about the following.

  • Select the POV from which the story will be told. Are the main characters the only narrator? Will you use first or third person? Omniscient or limited perspectives?
  • Select the tense in which the story will be written. Present and past tense are the obvious options, though I have seen some clever novels mix and match the two!

How do you normally conceptualise your story ideas? Have you ever used something similar to the 5W1H method? Do you think it could work for you?

  One thought on “Conceptualising a story idea with the 5W1H method

  1. 11/03/2020 at 10:15 PM

    Excellent ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 12/03/2020 at 7:26 AM

    I might’ve done something like that unconsciously but I think trying to do so intenitonally would lead to overthinking in my case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 12/03/2020 at 1:05 PM

      For sure! I had to remind myself a few times not to overthink while going through this process, since the aim was to identify the story’s key elements. Detailed development comes in at a later stage!!


  3. 12/03/2020 at 10:22 AM

    Excellent. This is actually what I attempt and it works. Makes developing the story easier, more concise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 12/03/2020 at 1:07 PM

      Thanks! I’m glad to hear someone else has used something similar! I found it a really quick and simple way to determine the story’s focus, which will really help as I go on to develop the concept further!!


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