An Ancient Creative Writing Idea Generator: The Why/Why, How/How Exercise

The unexamined life is not worth living. ~ Socrates

I'm a big fan of Socrates (and yes, I have to admit that Bill & Ted forever messed up the pronunciation of his name for me). However, I think if I had known him in life, I probably would have poisoned him too. Why? Because of that very question—why.

I imagine that one day Socrates must have been watching a child ask “why?” over and over to an exasperated parent. If the parent was patient, every question would beget a different answer. Socrates realized that this was a powerful method for garnering information and digging deep into the truth of the matter. But he was onto something very interesting and developed an entire problem solving method. He discovered that by asking questions a learner can evaluate their own level of understanding, deal with misconceptions about the subject early on and improve the methods of learning that take place in order to fine-tune the means of finding the answer.

Socrates was a proponent of “anamnesis” or the idea of recollection or drawing upon the deeper resources and hidden ideas within an individual. His method of inquiry was geared toward helping an individual explore deep-seated thoughts and beliefs and bring them to new understandings. Socrates accomplished this through a series of questions, asking over and over, why and how until the final truth was revealed.

Examples of his methods of questioning were first revealed in Plato’s Dialogues, in which he illustrates many conversations that his teacher had with other Greeks. Socrates wasn’t well-liked for his method of finding out the truth, for his constant questioning and overturning preconceived ideas made people uncomfortable. But he had a knack for drawing people in, changing mindsets and discovering answers that could only have been discovered by such an engaging process of questioning outcomes. When you challenge the answers, you can discover new truths, new possibilities and new processes.

There are numerous problem-solving tools used in business, science and medical professions today that utilize Socrates’ method of inquiry to ask questions with the intention of uncovering new ideas and possibilities that will in turn lead to improvements, creative divergences and logical answers.

For example, law schools have used the Socratic Method as a way to teach lawyers how to dig into the depths of problems by asking questions on every response given. Lawyers who have learned how to use this method effectively become adept at showing judges and juries new possibilities and truths when the evidence at hand seems impossible to figure out.

One of the best examples of a creative tool that uses the Socratic Method is the Why-Why diagram and its cousin, the How-How diagram. Both tools force new questions that branch from an initial inquiry—essentially they are diagrams that directly use Socrates’ method, asking why, why, or how, how, over and over. Writers can use this tool to identify root causes of problems of plots, characters or decisions that need to be made within the story. One of the greatest strengths of these exercises is the way that they can be used to determine cause and effect of actions within your story.

Why/Why and How/How diagrams both have the same basic structure. Take a piece of paper and on one side of the sheet, write your story question. It could be any sort of question, starting with why or with how. For example:

  • Why does Sandra, who is adopted, feel like she HAS to find her birth mother?
  • How does Mark cover up the murder of his girlfriend?

At this point, try to come up with at least two answers (but possibly more) to the question. Now, take those individual answers and ask why again and again, recording multiple results with each branch outward. Continue to ask why (or how) to each result until you feel that you have enough information.

Note the diagram below…each branch answers the question WHY? to the previous answer, thus expanding the ideas further and further.

Use Why-Why or How-How diagrams when you need to:

• Identify problems that you might be having with plot or characters
• Identify possible causes of key plot outcomes
• Investigate plot problems and find a fix
• Identify potential new subplots and opportunities for character development
• Define specific tasks for a goal (either your own or your characters')
• Visualize all aspects of a problem or goal

While the Why/Why and How/How diagrams are very concrete and clear examples of how problem-solving utilizes Socratic thought, nearly every creative and problem solving tool utilizes his methods in some way or another. The idea of examining your life, your surroundings and absorbing new ideas is very Socratic in nature. He taught others how to develop and grow as human beings (or as he describes in the Apology, living the “right way”) by being drawn out at length, in depth and detail, on issue after issue after issue.

Socrates began using his method of inquiry when he wanted to discover more about what he knew—or didn’t know. He used this same questioning method to show others that they didn’t know quite what they thought they knew. Essentially he showed that there is always room for more thought, to expand upon existing ideas, to better specific projects and to improve our own thinking. One has to wonder if the Oracle at Delphi was correct—that Socrates was indeed the wisest man. In his quest to show that he knew nothing, he discovered and learned more than he probably ever thought possible and in turn, did the same for others.

What will you do once you start asking Why and How, over and over?

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About the Author

Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website:

See other articles by Crystal King
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