Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Five Why’s

Question Concept with Magnifying GlassA couple of weeks ago we talked about a technique used in manufacturing problem-solving that can be adapted to fiction writing, the fishbone diagram.

Another Six Sigma technique that can be adapted for fiction-writing is Five Why’s. With this technique, the problem solver attempts to get to the root of the problem by asking “why?” five times in succession. This technique is used to avoid declaring victory before really drilling down to the fundamental issue.

Manufacturing situation: a customer rejects a print order because it’s flawed.

  1. Why is it flawed? Because the press wasn’t set up properly.
  2. Why wasn’t the press set up properly? Because the operator set it up wrong.
  3. Why did the operator set it up wrong? Because he wasn’t properly trained.
  4. Why wasn’t he properly trained? Because that part of the training program was discontinued.
  5. Why was that part of the training discontinued? As a cost-saving measure.

If you stopped after your second “why?” you would assume the pressman was at fault, when in fact the root cause is a policy issue.

(Note: Five Why’s is particularly useful, in my experience, when you want to actually solve a problem, rather than just find someone to blame it on.)

In fiction writing, I find this technique really useful when I’m trying to dig down into my characters’ motivations. For example:

  1. Why did my heroine sign a contract to sell her soul to Satan?

Because she wanted to be a New York Times bestseller.

From this, one would assume my protagonist is over-the-top ambitious, which is not a very attractive characteristic, but:

2. Why does she want to make the NYT Bestseller list?

Because she wants the money.

So, she’s interested in money rather than fame. Interesting, but not any more likeable.

3. Why does she want the money?

Because her pregnant sister just got arrested for selling drugs and she’s worried that if she can’t hire a good lawyer Sis will wind up taking a plea deal and giving birth in jail.

Much better. Now we’ve dug down to a reason that’s more sympathetic. But we’re not done yet.

4) Why is she so determined to save her sister from the consequences of her actions?

Because she’s been responsible for her younger sister for Sis’s entire life. She can remember climbing on a chair to warm a bottle in the microwave when she was just four years old.

Now we’re starting to dig down into her psyche. Things that happen to us when we’re very young (especially before school age) are really embedded into our personalities.

5) Why was she given so much responsibility at a ridiculously young age?

Her mother was a prostitute and a drug addict who didn’t know who the girls’ fathers were.

Now we’re really seeing the basis of who our heroine really is. At first glance, she appeared to be really shallow, interested in fame and fortune. Beneath the surface, though, is a young woman who has overcome almost impossible odds to become a writer. This is someone we can root for.

Is this a technique you think you could use to dig into your characters’ backgrounds?

3 thoughts on “Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Five Why’s

  1. It’s always best when a person knows as much as possible about their characters. It makes finding the conflict easier, for one thing! And it sounds like this technique could help a person do that. One more thing to try. 🙂

  2. I’ve been trying to get some traction on a new story, The Seeds of Destiny, and so far I’ve been going round in circles. I know what happens, but I don’t know why, or rather my whys are still at the superficial level. I agree that it’s really valuable to keep digging until you get to the good, crunchy stuff. I just hope I get there soon 😉

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