How to Build an Outline using the 5W’s

While there’s an intuitive side to writing, and something wonderful about trusting “the process.” Most stories could benefit from a rough outline. Using the journalist’s standby of the 5Ws is a good start.


Personally, I think if the process of writing were pared down to its technical/mechanical bits it would lose part of its charm. You don’t ask a woman the name of the perfume she’s wearing. Or how much someone paid for that lovely new sofa. And you don’t ask a storyteller “How did you do that?” (Although helpful hints and writing wisdom along the way is invaluable as mentors have proved to us all!)

“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.” – Samuel Butler

That said, most stories could benefit from a rough outline. There are many ways to work an outline, but I like to use the journalist’s standby: the 5Ws.


Without fail, there are 5Ws every story needs to cover, but only one of those 5 can take centre stage. The other four are the supporting cast. If you know which of the 5 W’s is your “real story,” then you won’t upstage it and confuse your reader in the process. Once you narrow down which of the 5Ws is your Main Story, the outline will almost write itself.


The 5Ws:

  1. Who

  2. What

  3. Where

  4. When

  5. Why



If your story is about a person (mainly!) then Who is your Starring 5W Character. It’s all about the who. The person, personality, characteristics, thoughts and feelings, motivators and weaknesses. The other 4Ws (what/where/when/why) need to fill in the blanks, provide background, colour and believability. But the main character is Who the story is about. As you outline, each paragraph or section or chapter needs to focus on, highlight and develop the Who. The Who of your story is the Filter: the action/setting/plot are all seen through their eyes and/or gain importance only through their subjective interpretation. If it doesn’t matter to them, it doesn’t matter. Everything else (e.g. the remaining 4Ws) is filler.


This doesn’t mean you don’t need to cover all 5Ws. If one is missing, your reader will know it. All 5 must be covered, but one must dominate to make the story interesting; to give it flow and for you, the writer, to have an instinctive sense of when the story is done in the telling. When you are done with the Who, for instance, you are done.


If your story is a Who story, this is a personal, subjective, metaphorical, overheard, intimate and appreciative and/or critical piece.



If your story is about an event (mainly), then the event—the What—takes centre stage. It’s all about the What: description, beginnings, sounds, sights, voices, purpose. Your reader wants to participate, to understand, to record with their own senses the What. The concert you took your 13-year-old daughter to for her birthday. The 25th Wedding Anniversary the doctor said you’d never see. The fishing trip with Dad up north. The protest rally that went wrong. This is an experiential, highly descriptive, immersive piece of writing.



If your story is place based (mainly!), then you have a Where piece. It’s about where: geography, reference points, significance, visuals, highlights, opportunities and memory, etc. If this is a story about where you grew up or where you fell in love or where you were when your life changed, then this is a where piece. This can be a large or small piece. It can be cosmic and imaginative, even speculative—where exactly is heaven? It can be about the riverbank where you fished out tires with a friend as a budding environmental warrior. It can be about the altar where you gave your life to Christ. Place is a great story. It invites others in.



If your story is time-based (mainly!), you have a When piece. When can be yesterday (24 hours prior), or yesteryear (in my day or in the days of old or in days of King Arthur). It can be present awareness. It can be a moment in time that defines all other moments. It can be the future. It can be later tonight… If time factors strongly into your story, you likely have a reflective, anticipatory, regretful or philosophical tone. Or you may have an urgent message—“If we don’t band together and do this now…!” Note: a time-based (When) story is different than an action-based (What) story. A time story is disembodied from the physical experience to some extent. Time is outside of us. We all experience time differently: time can fly, time can crawl. Time can be long or short. These are interesting stories and require some sense of context, some close observation and attention. It’s easy to lose focus in a When piece, and tempting to make it about something else. But these pieces are about time and they are wonderful to read when the writer embraces the topic and throws time to the wind…



If your story is about questions and answers or processing pain, then it’s likely a Why story. The other 4 Ws’s need to be present, but the Why is at top of mind. The details of the story are incidental to getting to the Why. Not all stories need to explore Why. All stories have to touch on it, but the other 4 types can allude to the Why, or suggest it, or wrap it up in a short conclusion or leave the reader hanging… But. If your story is (mainly!) about the Why, then you need to explore the question in depth, even if you’re ultimately uncertain. Perhaps, you’ll want to know why as much as your reader by the end. But in these pieces you know you’ve reached “the end” only when you’ve exhausted your avenues of inquiry, when you’ve unearthed the details within the details, when you’ve refused to settle for the pat reply. When you’ve really asked, you’ll really know why your story ends where it does. These pieces must be genuine, emotionally vested without being emotionally overwrought. There must be a detachment to be accessible. Not a coldness or hyper-rationality. Emotion and concern are key, but there must be enough distance from the subject to allow the reader breathing space to explore the question—to complete the quest—on his or her own as well.


Writing is about inviting the reader to engage. Whether your story is about a character, a person, or an Event, or a Time or a Place, or a Question, you have a story that deserves to be heard. For your reader to enter in, to read the words you write, you must have a sense of which of the 5Ws your story is Really About. This will be your Filter! Your lens. Your focus of each new thought. The rest is filler, set- up and backstory.


Ultimately, your subject dictates your Outline. You just need to know which of the 5Ws you are listening to; which story are you really telling? They will tell you all you need to know to tell their story well. Then, when you’re confident of which of the 5Ws’ story you’re telling, you can tune out the other 4. You can’t ignore the other 4. Your reader needs all 5 bases covered, but the other 4 are supporting material. Your Real Story is Singular. Build your outline by following their lead! And trust your instincts.

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