Often we hear that a writer should keep in mind the Five Ws, questions that answer who, what when, where, and why. A colleague reminded me this week of another set of Ws, a problem solving strategy known as the Five Whys. I’m bad about remembering this strategy as I solve coding problems as part of my day job, and the result is often that I solve a symptom of the problem at hand rather than the root cause. As a programmer, I should strive always to solve the root cause. So, on to the method.
Given a problem that needs solving, you first ask why it’s happening. Then you ask why again. And again. And at least twice more. And yet more times if needed. The idea is that by imposing on yourself the rule that you must ask why at least five times in succession, you stand a better chance of getting to the bottom of a problem rather than fixing only its manifestation. The example Wikipedia gives is as follows:
Given the problem that your car won’t start, you might ask these questions:
- Why won’t the car start? – The battery is dead. (first why)
- Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
- Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
- Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
- Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
- Why? – Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle. (sixth why, optional footnote)
If you stop after that first why, you might replace the battery but still have a broken car, since a broken alternator will cause the battery to lose charge again quickly. Even if you could get the car to start with a fresh battery and a broken alternator, the car would die again shortly because you fixed a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. If you stop after the fourth why and before the root cause, you might spend a bunch of money fixing your car but neglect to take it in for routine maintenance only to encounter the costly problem again in the future.
While thinking today about some ideas for things to write about, this strategy popped into my mind and I wondered if it might not be useful in writing as well, and especially in creative writing whose goal is to do more than simply relate a story. Let’s try this with a silly example and see where it takes us. I hereby posit that a freshly minted character, Bocephus, has a habit of painting his pinky toenail red.
- Why? He wants to paint one nail red but doesn’t want it to be as obvious as his pinky fingernail.
- Why? He’s emulating the magician Penn Jillette, but he fears that he’ll be ostracized and treated as effeminate if he goes around with a red pinky fingernail.
- Why? Once when he was a child, he got into his mother’s nail polish and his father ridiculed him for it, and it really made an impression.
- Why? Shortly thereafter, his father walked out for the proverbial pack of smokes and never came back, and Bocephus felt (being only a child without a great grasp of such things) that it must have been his fault and that his girly fingernail painting had been the last straw.
- Why? Because children labor under the false and probably universal impression that the world is governed by even the most trivial of their thoughts and deeds.
Using something resembling the Five Whys strategy, I’ve gone from a random statement of a character trait that I pulled out of the air while sitting here to a fact about the world that could serve as the kernel for a story whose theme is childhood perceptions of power and agency. Even if I decide that Bocephus is a silly or uninteresting character (he surely is), I’ve landed on an idea that might be fun to explore, and with that idea in mind, I can begin to pull together other details that might make a good story centered on the theme.
A similar strategy is useful when doing persuasive writing, though it requires that you ask not only why but also why not. That is, for any statement you make that you wish to persuade someone to believe, you must ask what’s plausible about it and what objections one might raise to it and then knock those objections down one by one. So even if you’re not trying to write fiction, the general approach of mindfully asking why or why not as you outline your argument stands to be useful.