5 Ws and an H
I stand before 18 aspiring journalists asking them to scrutinize five Ws and an H.
As they practice writing ledes, I encourage them. Make careful choices. What you emphasize—the who, what, when, where, why, or how—tells readers nearly everything about why a story matters. Opening sentences engage and compel; sometimes they account for all we know about a subject.
Who and what typically carry more weight than where or when. People and their movements take preeminence over whatever time and space they occupy. Start there, then bring those nouns and verbs as close together as possible. Lean and labor toward active language.
Fires rage. Nations strive. Neighbors hope.
Sometimes how presents itself plainly—in a simple act, a few words. Other hows require care, unfolding methodically over the span of paragraphs.
Why? We almost never know, I tell my students. Not really. Witnesses speak their minds. Stakeholders offer their logic. But discerning true motivation is a tricky business. Our first drafts of history cannot excavate all that lives inside a soul.
We kneel and rise before the events of Holy Week, trying to copy down the lede sentence of redemption’s story.
We kneel and rise before the events of Holy Week, trying to copy down the lede sentence of redemption’s story. Who, what, when, and where seem easy enough. So make them as active and specific as language allows.
Who? Jesus Christ. Man of Sorrows. Messiah. Lamb of God.
What? Redeems. Salvages. Unshackles. Reconciles.
Return to who. Rebels. Sinners. Runaways. A wretch like me.
Where? The cross. Stretched out on a Roman torture machine. At Calvary.
When? Two thousand years ago. Good Friday. Once and for all.
The how makes sense enough; redeemed completely through a sacrifice planned before time ever ticked. Yet when our salvation reaches the level of air and atmosphere, the plane of chronic disappointment and sorrow, it seems thin and distant. The decisiveness of the day wanes amid the everyday. How am I—how are we—redeemed in this moment?
Tim Keller tilted my world off its axis in a lesson on miracles. Modern people view miracles as extraordinary flashpoints, he said; but God means them as returns to the ordinary. Miracles restore the world, if only for an instant, to its first, perfect state—before sickness, war, division, and death.
Maybe the same logic applies to redemption. Thousands of Fridays after the best one, God remakes the world a fragment at a time, working out the holy ordinary.
The arts offer sure and specific proof. Redemptive frequencies arrive and, for a few measures, restore us to Eden. The word made flesh, then set to music.
The first world—and the one to come—hums a Beethoven melody, whirs like Chris Thile’s fingers across mandolin strings, breathes in and out after the fashion of John Coltrane at his saxophone.
I believe Rothko blues and Faith Ringgold figures will populate the new heavens and earth. Fields of Van Gogh wheat will wave as far as our perfect eyes can see.
I believe Rothko blues and Faith Ringgold figures will populate the new heavens and earth. Fields of Van Gogh wheat will wave as far as our perfect eyes can see. Today, such masterpieces qualify as acts of genius; one day, they will seem normal to those acquainted with glory.
We feel shivers of another world everywhere we go. A perfect earth vibrates like trembling lovers drawing close in the night. A moment’s safety, experienced by a son settled upon his father’s chest, stretches across that time and place. The justice of a rightful verdict and mercy of a last-minute pardon exist like root and flower.
Whatever makes us stand up and shout “Amen” or causes us to rub our weary eyes from blessed disbelief—these things will not only persist but characterize what’s coming. If nothing is impossible for God, the impossible will seem normal in his presence.
Why? God saves from his spilling-over love. He rescues the weak to shame the strong. The upside-down economy of grace requires toppling every other kingdom to set his aright. He redeems simply because he delights to.
Even if you accept those answers, do they really satisfy the why? We take God at his word, yet the vastness of divine love and logic prove impossible to parse.
A songwriter once told me he never wanted to learn Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” To live inside the song, to trace one chord to the next, or internalize the meter, would strip away its magic. I would feel the same way about diagramming a Brian Doyle sentence or breaking down a Franz Wright poem. Even if I could tell you why God saves, do I really want it to make sense? I’d rather lose myself on the page.
Now we have something like 5Ws and an H. Copy down the sentence; make it as compelling as possible. The Lamb of God redeemed me at the cross—and saves me even now through symphonies, kisses, summer rain, and refreshing acts of gentleness—just because.
Yours might read a little differently, but each attempt drips with grace. And one day it will seem like the most normal sentence ever written.