The Five Why’s of Writing

The Five Why's of Writing

This week I’ve decided to trot out one of my favorite writing tools that I use whenever I find myself stuck while writing a book. This tool originated in Japan in the 1930’s, but it’s been on my mind recently for other reasons entirely.

A few episodes ago on The Human Echoes Podcast, Albert and Tony somehow came up with a hook for a story. They run a lot of writing contests based on their hooks, in fact they’re running one right now, but this wasn’t part of a contest. It just sort of popped out of nowhere (Al was probably jabbering on about something) and they decided it was interesting and they kicked it around a bit.

The idea was this: What if the zombie apocalypse had almost happened?

What if patient zero had risen from the dead and had started lumbering about somewhere in the Texas desert, but what if it all had been avoided because some kid with a rifle had popped him through the head?

That was the story idea: The zombie apocalypse that never was. A kid in the middle of nowhere saving all of humanity with one quick shot.

The idea is appealing, but it also has a number of tricky bits. I mean, I can see it in my head, the desert, the arid space all around, the rural kid eyeing this lumbering body, unslinging his rifle, then a quick *bang* and the zombie drops. And that’s it.

But that’s a single scene.

How can you make a story out of that?

I still don’t have the answer, but this idea has been in the back of my head for weeks now and I figured it would be a good excuse to break out the tool I mentioned earlier: The Five Why’s.

See, back in the 1930’s, one Mister Toyoda wanted his country of Japan to become a competitor in global manufacturing. At the time the country was lagging way behind the rest of the planet and in order to step onto the world stage, Mister Toyada was going to need every edge he could get.

Luckily the guy was basically a wizard about coming up with ways to produce an edge. There are a number of innovations put into place during this era of Japanese manufacturing that are now commonplace throughout the world, and I don’t just mean new technologies. I’m talking about how you get to new technologies: innovations in how companies are run, how decisions are made, how troubles are addressed. Things like actually listening to the people working the floor, or allowing, even encouraging, problems to be brought up so they could be solved instead of hidden.

One of the ideas Mister Toyoda came up with was the concept of troubleshooting by using the Five Why’s.

It’s pretty simple.

If there’s a problem, you ask “Why?” five times.

That’s it.

It sounds sort of stupid written like that, but it’s freakishly effective when put to use (to be honest, I usually find that the hardest part about using the various tools I discuss on this site is getting me to shut my stupid brain off and actually take the time to utilize them).

So the idea behind the The Five Why’s is to scrape away at surface issues and get to the root of what really matters. As an aside, Mister Toyoda (yes he went on to found Toyota) created a loom in those early years that granted a huge improvement in quality as well as a boost in productivity twenty times that of anything seen in the world at the time. So…yeah. The guy knew what he was doing.

But let’s try using this tool with the zombie apocalypse that never was, shall we? Please note, since this is art and not a faulty loom, the “Why’s” that you might think to ask will probably be different than the “Why’s” that I think to ask. That’s what makes art fun.


texas desertQ 1: Why is this story interesting? I’ve thought about this thing for weeks, I keep coming back to it. There’s something gripping about the idea, but what?

A: It’s an inverse of the norm. Usually zombie stories are massive tales that contrast the world we know with what would happen after a zombie uprising: the cities teeming with undead, camps in rural areas, governments collapsed, our heroes in peril. That sort of thing. But this is the opposite. We have all of that in our mind when we think of a zombie story, but here it’s all subverted with one quick shot. We have the eerie stillness of a single note instead of a massive power chord.

Q 2: Okay. But why does the apocalypse get stopped?

A: Within this scene we really only have one action taking place. And, as stated above, that one little action means the world…but why does it happen? Why would this kid shoot something walking through the desert? I mean, either he’s a sociopath that roams around hoping to shoot wandering hobos, or he knows what he’s doing. I love a good sociopath story as much as the next guy, but I think this story has more weight if the kid knows that the wandering body is a zombie and that he should take it down.

Q 3: Why does he know this is a zombie?

A: Hmm. There is the obvious way to go with this, which is that the thing would probably look like a zombie. Still, shooting a person in the head is a big step. Everyone likes to yell at the screen during monster movies that the characters ought to attack the bad guy or run from the bad guy or be aware of the bad guy waaaay earlier than they actually do. The idiot characters should be quicker on the uptake. But the thing is, you say that because you know you’re watching a movie. If I’m being honest, I’ve come across plenty of weird people that could have been dangerous in some way or another, and they could have been movie-monster dangerous for certain. But I’ve never shot any of them in the head. The kid doesn’t know he’s in a monster movie and I don’t see him shooting someone (keep in mind that I picture him using a rifle at some distance) just because they look worn down and are shuffling along. He’s in the freaking West Texas desert. If someone had gotten stranded there, that’s what they would look like. So why does the kid know to shoot? Well…it’s a zombie so it’s undead. So the kid must know that. So the kid must know that whoever he is looking at is supposed to be dead. So the kid knows the zombie. Or knew the zombie. And he knows it has risen from the dead.

Zombie HunterQ 4: But why does he shoot?

A: This sounds like a repeated question but it’s not. The kid is looking over the desert at someone he knew, who he knows is dead, only they are up and walking around. That’s still not motivation enough to shoot. That’s motivation enough to slowly walk up to the thing and talk to it. Honestly, if you saw someone you know to be dead walking around, I think talking to them would be a universal first step. “Hey! Fred? Um…how’ve you been? Pretty sure we buried you awhile back…soooo…” I mean for all this kid knows, this is the long-lost twin of whoever he’s thinking of. Again, raising a rifle and shooting someone in the head in a calm setting is a big move. It’s a hot, still, Texas day in the desert with nothing around. There’s plenty of time to assess the situation. Plus the thing is in the distance just shuffling along. You don’t go from seeing that to, “Oh I should kill that person” for no reason. Why shoot? Only one answer. You shoot because you know this thing is dangerous.

Q 5: Why does he know it’s dangerous?

A: He knows it’s weird. He knows he’s scared and confused. He knows something isn’t right. Maybe he’s freaking out a bit and fear is yelling at him to raise his rifle and fire…but he can also imagine his mom’s voice yelling at him asking why her baby boy murdered someone who looked like Fred in the desert. The drive to avoid looking like an idiot and going to jail for being dumb is pretty strong. So how does he know, I mean calmly-raise-a-rifle-up-and-draw-a-bead-on-a-human-skull-know that he needs to shoot? Because he’s seen this thing in action. Because he knows what it can do. Because he’s seen the zombie virus run its course. He’s seen something lumber in and bite someone he knows. He’s seen that person die. Then he’s seen that person get back up and try to bite someone else. He knows what happens. He knows it’s dangerous because he’s seen it already. This thing attacked someone while he was watching. And now it’s heading  somewhere where others might be in danger.

And there it is. That’s where the story lies. That’s why one rifle shot means so much.

The details? Oh those are just details. Like maybe Zombie X roared into camp while the kid and his dad were out hunting, ripped his dad’s throat out, fed a bit, got distracted, wandered off in the direction of town. The kid saw it all. He freaked out and went into shock over his dad’s corpse. His dad’s corpse sat up and attacked. He put his dad down. And then the kid realized that he has to go hunt his father’s killer. Or, hey, maybe Zombie X is killed at camp and his father is the one lumbering off towards town.

The decisions? Oh there are decisions to make. As I’ve said over and over, I would opt to tell this in one scene. Meaning I would have to get across all the information about the hunting trip or whatever through cues and thoughts, so I’d probably tell this with a pretty close connection to the kid’s mindset.

Problems? Oh there are bound to be problems. I’m not saying this exercise solves all your story-writing problems forever.

What this exercise does do is help you get to the core of what’s really going on so you can tell your story more effectively.

It doesn’t answer everything in one swoop, sadly.

But hey, it’s a lot better than adding some nudity and hoping for the best.