The story element What is a critical part of a story. Who is important, but without What, there really isn’t any story. The What generally amounts to an event, a romance, an accident, a speech, an election, or an apocalypse.
Normally, What is your plot in the novel or short story and is what your character will focus on. You tie your protagonist to the What, the plot, and the story proceeds through to a resolution.
If you read book blurbs, those paragraphs on the back of paperbacks or the inside flap of a dust jacket, you get a feel for the What. Well-written blurbs usually provide a clue to the main character and the What they will face. Since I mention “well-written,” that indicates there are poorly written … but, I digress.
A lot goes into What. An event, say a wedding, takes a lot of planning and coordination (think Father of the Bride). The event beginning brings in the planner, they select the venue, they redecorate the venue, they select colors, they select flowers, the bride chooses the gown, and all the other details. And, it takes up to a year to carry out.
How you structure that and how your character(s) behave and interact in it can make the story a classic comedy, a bloody thriller, a murder mystery, or an intense drama. Just for a mental exercise, take the movie mentioned above and envision it as a murder mystery. The What doesn’t actually change much, but the characters involved and how they behave do. Significantly.
In my own mental reboot of Father of the Bride, the wedding planner ends as a gruesome murder victim. Of course, the father is the prime suspect, but several of the characters have motive. I even have the groom as a witness to the murder, but he dies horribly just before the ceremony where he planned to name the murderer.
So, you see, the What is a mundane thing. How you, as the writer, treat it is what makes the story.
In my post a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the lead. Who and What are two elements almost always included in the lead. As readers, we care most about who did what, or what happened to whom. As authors, we take the What and break it down to its parts and have the character(s) work in it.