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What you can learn from children and Toyota

What do kids and Toyota have in common? They ask “why?” a lot. If you've ever spent time around a child, you've probably experienced the phenomenon of endless whys. Children are masters at digging deep.

In the world of manufacturing, Toyota and its world-renowned manufacturing system are the same way. (In spite of their recent problems, I still worship the ground that Toyota's founders walk on.) One of the four tools that Toyota quality specialists use to solve quality problems, is to ask “why?” five times in order to reach the root cause.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I believe that if we force ourselves to continually ask why our characters are doing, saying, or feeling whatever it is they're doing, saying, or feeling, we'll find the holes and inconsistencies that often plague our stories. Asking why will also help us develop a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations.

Let's say you've determined that your character's goal in the scene is to acquire money to save her company from financial ruin. Now you need her motivations. You can either ask each why of the original goal, or ask subsequent whys to follow up on the previous question.

For example, here's a list where each why is directed back to the original goal (money to save her company).

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She doesn't want to lay off her employees.

3. Why?  She wants to prove to her father that she can succeed in business without his help.

4. Why?  If her business fails, she'll lose everything.

5. Why?  If the business fails, her employees will lose their health insurance, and one of them has a very sick child.

Here's an example where each why builds on the previous one.

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She has spent all her time building the company, at the expense of her social life.

3. Why?  She believes the men who ask her out just want her family's money, so she avoids dating altogether.

4. Why?  She doesn't think men can see beyond the scar on her face to fall in love with the woman inside.

5. Why?  Her previous boyfriend cheated on her.

Notice the second example could create a large branching tree of why lists, one branch for each of the questions in the first list. You can take it as deep as you want, but even a little digging may reveal surprising insight into your characters' motivations.

So foster your childish, Toyota-like need to get to the bottom of things. Go forth and ask, “why?”