As I mentioned last week, a lot of my writing and teaching practice was shaped by Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction and his approach to story. Yet, I didn’t stick to his exact formula and expanded on it, turning it into the acronym WOARO.
This week, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of what it stands for and how each piece works so that you might use it in your writing practice.
WOARO = Story
First of all, you are probably wondering what exactly does WOARO stand for. It is an acronym for Want, Obstacle, Action, Response, and Outcome. These are the five basic elements of all stories.
A character wants something, but an obstacle stands in her way, which creates conflict. Therefore, she takes action, which elicits a response, leading her to take new actions and face new responses. Eventually, she'll arrive at an outcome, either getting what she wants or not.
This simple formula is the heart of all story, and if your story isn’t working in any way, it’s probably because one of these pieces is not working or missing altogether.
So, let’s look at each piece.
We all have wants. These are the goals that get us up in the morning and drive our hopes and dreams. They are of absolute importance, and in story, they are a matter of life and death. If your character thinks they can live without it, it won’t create enough energy to push your story forward.
There are two types of wants in story.
- There is the one that operates within the boundaries of the story. This is what the audience has come for. It is the search for the buried treasure, the wooing of the romantic partner, the hunt for the man that killed your hero's father. They are external and specific and push your character to take action and propel the story forward.
- The second one exists outside of the boundaries of your story. These are the BIG character goals that drive us through life. They could be happiness, love, wealth, power, or status. They are often abstract, and not defined by a concrete value.
Lastly, the want is the flag in the ground that tells us where the story is going and signals our story’s end. It doesn’t mean that the character will get what they want, but by the end, they will either win or lose the opportunity to achieve it.
In story, want can’t exist independently; otherwise, the main character would get what they want immediately and that would be boring. Want needs something to push against it so that there will be conflict. That thing is the obstacle.
Consider the obstacle to be the flip-side of want. It can be anything that stands in your main character’s way to achieving their want, but since your main character will always be changing their actions to move around, through, or over the obstacle, the more dynamic the it is, the better.
That's why another person is an ideal obstacle. They will be continually adjusting their actions and responses to achieve their want, and they will do at all cost because they too believe it is a matter of life and death.
Obstacles can also be internal. They can be the inner desires, drives, or ghosts that haunt a character’s mind and past.
Most importantly, if want and obstacle aren't on the page, as soon as possible, your story will suffer.
Action and Response
Actions are the things a character does to get past the obstacle to achieve their want.
It can be a physical action (punch, kick, run, jump, etc.), or it can be what they say (and how they say it). More importantly, it can also be what they don’t do (Hamlet was the king of inaction).
All action leads to a response, the fallout out from actions. If we punch someone, they’ll punch back. If we knock a person out, the people around them might respond. If we murder someone, sure as hell, there’ll be a response.
Action and response can act internally, as well. We can think and plan and devise a plan to take physical action. Or if someone yells or hits us, we’ll have an instantaneous reaction of emotion (anger, hurt, fear).
Like want and obstacle, action and response are two sides of the same coin. A character’s actions can drive responses, but the actions of the environment (stimulus) can also create responses from the main character.
Action and Response are the heart of all story. It is the show of show, don’t tell. If you forget everything else in this essay, remember that by showing the actions and responses, whether externally or internally, is how you put your story’s drama on the page.
The outcome is the final piece, but if you don’t have your want and obstacle in place, this won’t matter.
The outcome is whether your character gets what they want or they don’t. It occurs when no further actions and no additional responses can be taken. Your character has reached the limits of their resources and abilities and can go no further.
Did they get what they want? And is it on the page?
The critical thing to understand here is that a character’s want never ends. If they don’t get what they want, it won’t stop the desire. The only way is to wipe it out of existence, and even then, the character probably won’t stop wanting it.
However, if the character gets what they want, that won’t stop them wanting it either. Ask Macbeth. He wanted to be king, and he got it halfway through the play and then spent the rest of the time murdering everyone to hang onto it.
The only way that want can stop is if it shifts to a different want: a different relationship, a different goal, a different need.
Why I Love WOARO so damn much
Early on, when I was trying to understand story, I could never understand what the boundaries of an act were (for example, in a three-act structure). Why did an act start and why did it end? To me, one of the beauties of WOARO. (and there are many in my mind) was that it answered this. It acts as a self-contained unit of action and because of this, it can help shape every level and section: beat, scene, sequence, act or part, story, or series. It expands and contracts, guiding and driving every stage.
This flexibility means that we can apply WOARO to any genre and any form of story. The same rules apply whether it is science fiction or a romantic drama. I can use it in a non-fiction piece, a screenplay, or an epic poem. Hell, I've even applied it to paintings and other artwork.
More important is that WOARO is a reflection of all human actions. We all have wants and obstacles standing in our way. We take actions and face responses, and this complex dynamic is what that drives and pushes us through our lives. The foundations of WOARO truly define who we are as human beings.
Finally, should you always use WOARO?
The short answer is no. Why complicate an already overly complicated process. I want you to be writing and enjoying the process.
But, since it is the DNA of all story and life, you should turn to it when your writing isn't working. Pull it out and look at your story and ask yourself what element needs help:
- Is the want and obstacle present and on the page?
- Are your characters taking actions and responding to the situations around them, and is it on the page?
- If your outcome isn’t happening, then why not? Is it tying into the want and obstacle?
Hopefully, WOARO can help you. I plan on exploring it further but really wanted to share the essential elements of it today.
All the best in creating your next story.