Tag Archives: stories

The Best Stories You Never Told

WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY: five essential questions writers ask to get the full scope of a story. Like most kids, I learned about the 5W’s in elementary school. I wish I had the wisdom back then to apply them, because I missed out on some really great stories.

I was an only child surrounded by old people—grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, neighbors, family friends. They loved to gossip, and I was good at eavesdropping on their adult conversations.

I found out WHO in the neighborhood had come home drunk and WHAT happened when his wife caught him with another woman, WHEN she caught him and WHERE. And I wondered along with the gossipers WHY she stayed with that drunken man after he cheated on her. Those were the stories that my little ears shouldn’t have heard. The best stories, though, might have been those the old people held tightly locked in their hearts.

This season, summer, is the season of patriotic holidays, and I might have some good stories to tell had I thought to apply the 5W’s.

On a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) I went with my grandma to the cemetery to plant geraniums on the graves. We planted red geraniums in front of the big Dumke family stone, and then we planted a white geranium on each of the six graves where the Dumke children were buried. “Grandma,” I asked, “why do we put white geraniums on these?” Her answer was brief, almost harsh. “Because, it’s what we do.” Today, I look at that same headstone and the six smaller stones marking the graves of grandma’s young siblings and I have questions. So many questions.

On Independence Day, Grandma always hung a huge American flag between the front window of her upper flat and the big, old oak tree at the curb. Her husband, my grandfather, had died when Grandma was just thirty-nine. But someone (Grandpa?) had fixed a rope and pulley to make it easy to hang the flag. It was a 48-star flag, the flag soldiers and sailors fought for in WWII. It was a 48-star flag that the Marines raised over Iwo Jima. I remember that flag in front of her house every Fourth of July and how reverent and respectful grandma was when she fixed it onto the rope and sent it flying. Today, I have questions.

I remember my Great-Uncle Walter, too. He was an always-in-charge, short, bald little man who walked with a distinct limp. I laugh when I think of a Veteran’s Day when he sat in an old, 1950’s upholstered swivel rocking chair in his living room telling a battle story about the Spanish American War. As if re-enacting the experience he raised his arms, covered his head with his hands and ducked. “Bullets were flying to the right of me! Bullets to the left . . .” And then, just as the story was getting really good, the bottom of the swivel rocker gave way sending Walter’s backside to the floor. That, in itself, is a story. But still, I wonder. WHO was shooting those bullets? WHAT happened next? WHEN did it happen and WHERE? And WHY did Walter walk with a limp.

Five little questions I wish I had asked.

My advice to young writers, all writers, is to listen. Listen to that little voice inside that’s telling you, “There’s a story hidden here.” Then apply the 5W’s. Ask and keep asking until you get the full scope of the story.

If you don’t ask, you might miss writing the best stories you could have told.

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