Who, what, where, when, and why, why, why?

Kurt Vonnegut would have turned 100 years old in November, were he still alive today, but as he might say, “So it goes.” He passed away in 2007, but not before he left the world a literary fortune, including his thoughts on the key elements of a story. In a highly entertaining lecture (available on YouTube) he laid out the “science” behind stories: How they all follow various forms that can be graphed on a Y-axis of good and ill fortune and an X-axis of time. Where the character begins and ends, and what they overcome, creates the shape of what we call a story. These stories take about one of three forms, he thought, boiled down to “Boy meets girl,” “Man in hole,” and “Cinderella.”

As U of M communicators, we’re telling stories all the time—about research discoveries, medical successes, outreach/engagement, and education.

One example among many is the “Where It Starts” series, produced each February for Black History Month by University Relations and partners. The stories in the series focus on one or more of just three themes, and the questions asked reflect those. In short, the series asks participants about 1) Overcoming an obstacle in your path, 2) Finding your community, and 3) Finding or fulfilling your purpose. It’s not intentional, but you can probably see a parallel between each of these and Vonnegut’s three categories.

To get at these cores of the story, we ask questions around what the person was seeking at the moment of the above 1), 2), and/or 3); what or who they met that changed the situation; and what has been found because of it.

So, these are some shapes a story can take, but what are some ingredients?

In his famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes three elements (ingredients) of a story, boiled down to: departure, initiation, and return. Again, we can get to those elements in a nonfiction story by asking what caused our “character” to go down the path they took? What challenges did they encounter and overcome? What did they learn and how did it change them?

Journalism, of course, teaches the 6 w’s (or 5 w’s and an h) to get at a story: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. When writing a feature, or a person-centered story, I always think about this as the who, what, where, when, how, and why, why, why. The “why” gets at what your “character” cares about, what motivates or drives them, what brings to light their passion/feeling. If “Man in hole” doesn’t care enough to get out of said hole, you have a problem, but not likely a very good story. And if you don’t ask about why, you may not have a story that is going to resonate on a deeper level with readers.

U of M story-sharing meetings: About once per quarter, communicators from around the U of M meet to discuss University stories. Email Kelly O'Hara Dyer (ohara119@umn.edu), editor of Minnesota Alumni magazine, to receive email notifications about the meeting.

Disclaimer: There are a thousand caveats to all of this, of course, not the least of which being that the stories of our and others’ lives don’t always abide by the rules. And of course, it depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell—particularly whether it is person-centered, which may be the case in many features you encounter but perhaps not in many news releases.