Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Fishbone Diagrams

fish diagramIn my day job back in the late 90’s and the 00’s, I worked for a business forms printing company. Like most manufacturers, they were always looking for ways to cut costs and improve quality, so they put a lot of employees through Six Sigma training.

Most of what I learned has absolutely no bearing on writing a novel, but there were a few techniques that I’ve actually found helpful. Today we’re going to talk about Ishikawa (aka “fishbone”) diagrams.

Ishikawa diagrams are a tool for looking at potential causes of a problem. If the head of the fish is a problem, then the bones are all the potential causes for the problem. Although this graphic only shows the main bones, in a true Ishikawa diagram some or all of the main bones feather out to smaller ones that show contributory causes.

In manufacturing, the main bones are the 5 M’s: Man, Machine, Money, Method, Materials but you could change that to resolve a story issue. For example:

Problem: My story is flat and uninteresting.

What are the possible sources of this problem?

a) Man (i.e. the main character). Is he/she interesting? Original? Are there character arcs compelling?

b) Machine (i.e. the plot) Is the external plot complex enough? Conversely, is it too convoluted, causing the reader to become frustrated and detach?

c) Money (i.e. resources) Is the character challenged enough? Or do things come too easy?

d) Method (i.e. pacing) Is the pace varied? Does it escalate over the course of the book?

e) Materials (i.e. your prose) Are your choices of words and images fresh and original without being distracting?

A story that’s not working can be caused by any of these or, more likely, a combination. If you find you’re not able to look at your story objectively, you can also use the fishbone diagram as a way to interact with critique partners by asking them to comment on each of your five M’s,

Because these methods work best with concrete information, encourage your critique partner to support their assertions (“It’s your characters.” “It’s your pacing.”) with examples from your text. It may be that something you like a lot really isn’t working, or is creating an impression that’s not what you expected.

I know using a manufacturing quality control methodology to improve your writing may seem a little weird, but it can be helpful to look at your story, and your process, from a new angle.

Does this approach speak to you?

8 thoughts on “Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Fishbone Diagrams

  1. The fishbone diagram for manufacturing sort of reminds me of a Kanban board for software projects. In those, you have a long board that everybody looks at together every day, and all the types of projects are color-coded. So, programming X is blue, and quality control is red, and testing is yellow, and fixing is green, or whatever, and then each subelement has a different tag. These functions are interrelated, and as each step is completed, the tag moves over one, so there’s a nice rainbow in the middle, until all the colored tags are at the opposite side of the board when the project is finished.

    And now that I think of it, the whiteboards that we tried in Jenny’s class are sort of like this, too—where plot, character, etc., each got a different colored sticky and was put by each chapter head so you could see how balanced your story was.

    I guess it’s all about the visual and how it keeps you on track. Could work!

  2. Jeanne, I like this way of applying a process from one area of your life into another. It’s nice to have a variety of ways to look at things so that, when you inevitably get stuck, you can apply one method and, if that doesn’t work, try another.

  3. Pingback: Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Five Why’s – Eight Ladies Writing

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