Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Five Whys

Technique Tuesday

One of the most important things engineers do is analyze the root causes. If, for example, defective items start to flow down an assembly line, it's much more important to find the cause for the defect upstream than to fix the defective items. Finding the root cause means that the assembly line will no longer produce defective items.

There's a powerful analogy here for writers, who need to understand both characters and their motivations and the forces that have produced the settings. Story arises from conflicting forces and motivations. If those forces and motivations are definitional (e.g., the villain is simply evil) the story will feel much more contrived than a story in which the forces and motivations flow naturally from root causes.

So, how can you get to the root causes as either a writer or an engineer?

One powerful method (which I vaguely recall being attributed to Toyota) is the 5 Whys.While it sound at first like an exercise in being an annoying child, the essence of the method is to ask, "Why?" five times.

  1. Why is that character the villain? Because he's evil.
  2. Why is he evil? Because he hates people.
  3. Why does he hate people? Because he's never known anyone who didn't let him down, beginning with his parents.
  4. Why did his parents let him down? Because they ignored him.
  5. Why did they ignore him? Because they were too busy working with the League of Do-Gooders.

Granted this little example is a bit contrived, but it illustrates the method of digging deeper with the 5 Whys: we've gone from a bland, definitional villain to one that has a bit of depth--though not nearly enough to be a compelling antagonist. And that brings us to a second point about the method: it's something you must use repeatedly to really understand the situation. In our example, we should use the 5 Whys to explore how the villain came to power, what his plans are, and so on.

Give "Why?" a try.*

*Who thinks this would make a good T-shirt slogan?

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net