I first was paid to write in June 1967, when I was hired to work as a reporter by Jim Davis, city editor of The Daily Reporter, a six-day-a-week newspaper in Dover, Ohio.
I was 20 years old, with two years of college behind me and without any experience. Why Jim offered me the job remains a mystery to me to this day.
Maybe it was because he figured I would work cheap. Maybe it was out of pity. Or perhaps he had been given a first chance, too, by someone else years before. I like the last suggestion. My grandfather always taught patience. He used to say that it was everybody’s first day some day.
In the months that followed June 1967, it became an even bigger mystery to me why Jim didn’t fire me; he never seemed satisfied with what I wrote. But I took his criticisms to heart. It drove me crazy, trying to make the man happy; it also taught me to write tight, fast and clean.
One of the lessons Jim passed on to me was the five questions a reporter had to ask to write a complete story. Who, what, where, when and how.
“When you get good at the basics,” Jim said. “You can start asking why.”
Someone may be saying about now, “Aw, that’s journalism.”
No; that’s story-telling. And it works just as well with fiction as it does non-fiction.
Think about it.
Who, what, where, when and how. Colonel Mustard did it (killed Mr. Bode) in the Library (last night) with the candlestick. That’s a complete story. Maybe not a very complex or interesting tale, but a story, nonetheless.
Let me suggest an even tighter story. Joe died today at home of cancer. A complete story in only seven words. But, you may ask, where’s the story arc? Where’s the character development? Where’s the conflict? Where is the situational resolution?
Most of it is implied. It’s only seven words, afterall. From there, you use modifiers to expand it. Adjectives and adverbs and subordinate clauses and carefully crafted turns of language.
Not just Joe, but Joe Arnold, the 62-year-old merchant marine captain, who passed on quietly in his small, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle, after battling lung cancer, heroically, for seventeen agonizing months.
All of it is detail and how much detail you add determines whether you produce flash fiction or a trilogy of novels. You need to do this with care, of course. Too much detail can smother a story. And even if you get it just right, all of that detail only expands the breadth of the story, not its depth.
To develop depth, let’s think of that simple, seven-word statement as the seed story from which a complex and emotionally satisfying tale can grow. And the tool that you must use to cultivate depth is that word Jim Davis told me I could use when I got “good at the basics”.
I believe that asking “Why?” is the single most important question a writer can employ. Why did Joe contract cancer? Why did he live alone in a small apartment? Why was his death so protracted? The answers are what keep a reader reading because they produce emotional resonance.
And once you begin asking that little question, you will have to decide when to turn off the flow of information that follows, because with each answer, more “Whys?” occur – and your story grows deeper and deeper, more emotionally complex and all of those issues that I mentioned earlier – story arc and character development and conflict – become more and more clear.
The result is a story that encourages the reader (and the writer, I suggest) to laugh and cry and grow angry or hopeful, for that is what all readers want – to be moved, to be transported outside themselves for a time and allowed to look into the mind and the heart of another.
So there it is – my philosophy of writing. For flash, for short stories, for novels; whatever. Start simple, add detail a bit at a time and keep asking “Why?”
It’s what Jim Davis was trying to teach me, all those years ago. And I like to believe that he would be pleased to see that I finally figured it out.