NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

Beyond the 5 W's: What should you ask before starting a story?

• December 13th, 2016

We all know the classic “5 w” questions journalists ask: Who, what, where, when, why (and bonus, “how”). But you should also consider the six additional questions listed below, which complement those fundamentals. They are informed by journalism but focused on storytelling.

Your answers to these questions may change in the process of reporting. That is OK. The idea is not to set a course and refuse to veer from it, but rather to make a creative investment at the beginning of your story process that will help guide you to the end of it.

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Print this poster out! Here’s a PDF. (Illustrations by Chris Kindred)

What is my story’s driving question?

You may be accustomed to writing a focus statement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m partial to questions instead of statements. A question gives you a mission; a puzzle to solve. The process of answering that question focuses your reporting and allows your story to become a journey for the listener or reader. (For example, “Why are members of the state legislature voting to give themselves a raise?”)

Beware: If you have multiple questions, you probably have multiple stories. Stick to one and answer it well. Your audience will stay with you.

What is the story not about?

Too often, we bite off far more than we can chew in our stories. It’s understandable. We feel an obligation to be comprehensive and we fear the consequences of leaving out a detail. But no story — not even an hour-long documentary or a New Yorker-length essay — can encompass an entire topic.

Our first job is to communicate clearly and memorably — and that requires leaving things out. So make a list of the angles, questions and context you can cut. Test them against your driving question: Will this help to answer the question for listeners? Will it distract, or diffuse, the focus? And then, release yourself from this sense of obligation (editors, you must help reporters do this). Let yourself tell the most focused story possible.

How will I ensure my story is fair to the people and ideas it represents?

As journalists, we understand the importance of fairness. NPR’s Ethics Handbook is a great guide. As storytellers, achieving fairness can feel more complicated. A narrative may be stronger if it presents one person’s journey, instead of multiple perspectives. And yet, is that fair?

Related reading

Exercise: Imagining your story

How audio stories begin

A good lead is hard: Here’s how to write a good one

First of all, ask yourself if your story is transparent enough. Does it make clear to the audience that different viewpoints exist, even if it doesn’t delve into them?

Secondly, seek tension. Stories that present one viewpoint often lack the tension that a compelling story needs. So even if you are focusing on one person or situation, ask yourself where the conflict resides. (If there is no conflict or tension, or nothing significant is at stake, you may not have a story.)

Finally, remember that fairness can be achieved across coverage. Each story can’t present all viewpoints equally, but comprehensive coverage can. Tell your audience where related stories can be found and be transparent about your editorial approach.

How will I engage my audience — and hold them?

Always try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Just saying an issue is important or the stakes are high rarely gets the job done.

How can you illustrate it in a way that’s interesting? Why would your audience want to listen to or read this? Is there a big, compelling idea? A character whose story should be prioritized? An emotional or intellectual thread that can run throughout the story? Are there ear- or eye-grabbing ways to attract the audience? This is your chance to think creatively about story and storytelling.

What are my dream ingredients?

Imagining the elements of your story ahead of time is a time-honored approach. It helps you conceive your story and plan your reporting.

What voices are essential? What complicated issue must be explained? What quotes will clearly address your driving question? What moment or scene will make the story unforgettable? What transition will tie the pieces together? What will give the story personality?

Think big. Of course, you can’t produce all the ingredients you want and many of the best ones should be serendipitous or results of reporting — but thinking about them ahead of time helps you reach for the best story you can tell.

What will the audience remember when it’s over?  

This is a great thought experiment that keeps in mind the limitations of the audience. We rarely remember entire stories; more often, it’s particular quotes, scenes, characters or ideas.

So put yourself in the shoes of that listener in her car or walking down the street with earbuds. She has just finished your story. What is she thinking about? Is she left with a question to ponder? A new way of seeing her neighborhood or her city or her country? An idea that expands her thinking?

You can build your stories to have the impact you want them to have — by keeping in mind what you want the audience to remember and working towards it as you report, write and produce. (And yes, you should always be prepared to pivot when you learn new things in the course of your reporting.)

A final note

Don’t feel there are natural answers to these questions floating out in the ether, if only you can grasp them. There aren’t. Answering these questions is all about you making choices. Liberate yourselves to make them.