Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Who, what, when, where, why, and how? Six key questions for any storyteller to answer. But how do you actually use them to improve your writing? Well, that’s the question we’ll be answering today. Or, at least, that’s the question we’ll be telling you how Rudyard Kipling answered in his poem ‘I Keep Six Honest Serving Men.’
Rudyard Kipling’s famous personification of the five Ws + H is a brilliantly simple tool for writers. Journalists are well acquainted with the importance of answering all six questions, and even the business world has noticed that this comprehensive line of questioning can be a great problem-solving technique. How, then, can we bring the six serving men back into our writing and benefit from Kipling’s century-old poem? There are at least four valuable applications for fiction and non-fiction: detail, scope, rest, and focus.
Application 1: Detail
The first part of Kipling’s poem is both the most famous and the most direct:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
This vignette is little more than a rhyme-y reframing of English’s question words – who, what, where, when, why, and how – and yet that simple aside (they taught me all I knew) is a reminder that whatever we want to know can be found by asking these six questions. Facing a problematic chapter? Bust out the six questions. Starting a new project but feeling stuck? Enter the six questions. Need to dig deeper? The 5 Ws + H are your right-hand men.
Does this seem too obvious? Sometimes, going back to the basics can be eye-opening, and asking the obvious questions can yield some less-than-obvious answers. If you’re just getting started, the six serving men can give you a reliable way to organize your thoughts and prepare the world of your story and the people who inhabit it. When you have a story in mind, a six-point outline is all you need to get started:
Who: a boy
What: alone in the woods and fostered by animals
When: during the British colonial rule of India (vaguely)
Where: the jungles of India (vaguely)
Why: to cope with abandonment, find an identity, and overcome adversity
How: by facing that which one fears the most
After that, Kipling wrote, ‘the pen took charge, and I watched it begin to write stories about Mowgli and animals.’ We can, of course, assume that Kipling had a bit of authority over the pen, but you may be surprised how ideas flow when you give them an outline and focus on one point at a time.
If your project is already underway, subjecting it (or parts of it) to a six-point interrogation may be a good way to find direction or hone in on your priorities. The answer to ‘why’ might unearth some surprising backstory or an inner conflict that needs to inform their choices; the ‘how’ can lead you to surprising plot solutions; and asking ‘who’ might help you tune into the needs of a minor character.
Application 2: Scope
The lesson of the six serving men isn’t limited to their function, however. If there’s one thing Kipling’s known for – well, it’s The Jungle Book. If there’s one other thing Kipling’s known for, it’s scope. The man wrote everything from hard-hitting journalism to religious radio drama, from children’s fables to poetry and back to novels again. Take a look at these two less-quoted lines from the poem:
I send them over land and sea
I send them east and west
Most people know that Kipling lived in India. Fewer people realize that he wrote about a part of India he’d never visited while residing in a cottage in Vermont. While precision is important for historical fiction et al., fables, sci-fi, fantasy, drama, surrealism, mystery, and dystopia need coherence more than they need 100% accuracy. The settings need to feel real to the reader, and that means they need to be backed by research, but writers who aren’t setting their stories in a mirror image of reality ought to be free to commission their ‘service men’ to lands far and wide without necessarily traveling there themselves.
It’s little wonder Kipling let his imagination off the leash. His childhood was filled with fables – stories told to him by the family’s servants – and he escaped his own hellish boarding school experience by marooning himself with Robinson Crusoe, traversing South Africa with a lion hunter, and relishing the rhymes of Tennyson.
To say that Kipling sent his servants over land and sea, east and west, may be metaphorical, but it’s not at all an exaggeration. These ‘serving men’ traveled to Gethsemane and Greece, Afghanistan and England, and nearly everywhere in between, oceans included. A quick glance at a Kipling bibliography will display the breadth of his imagination (not to mention prolificacy). They say ‘write what you know’ but, as Kipling proves, you can learn almost anything.
Application 3: Rest
Give your work a break. Even if you’re a nose-to-the-grindstone, dusk-till-dawn kind of writer, at some point, you need distance from your writing:
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
Hungry. Consuming. Depleting. Writing is hard work, and it will drain you. It requires fuel, and once it’s consumed your supply, you’ll find yourself at an impasse: I’ve reworked this novella eight times. I’m seeing the chapter headings in my sleep. When I try to re-edit that troublesome last chapter, the words all blur together.
Kipling’s symbolic serving men encompass the author’s need for rest. When the work is demanding, the craftsman will grow tired. Determined to finish, she might nevertheless push herself to the point of burnout. The same writer would never force real-life employees to work through nights and mealtimes, so by externalizing these needs, Kipling puts a quaint spin on a vital fact: you need to take breaks. Some short ones, some long ones, but bottom line: you need breaks. Your work needs breaks. It takes energy, and energy is not infinite. So take an afternoon tea break, sleep on it, or lock it away for a month – whatever you need to do to refuel.
Application 4: Focus
The closing lines of Kipling’s poem aren’t cut and dry. The ‘person small’ is most likely a child, who never tires of questions and whose imagination is never exhausted. It might also, however, be a writer whose lack of focus is likely to run her story into the ground:
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, Two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!
The image of the child brimming with questions and overflowing with energy from the moment her eyes pop open in the morning is, while endearing and even inspiring, less instructive. A child has to learn to direct their energy (and questions) or their stories sound like a mash-up of Kafka and Sesame Street. The writer who asks too many questions, goes in too many directions, and makes too many demands will exhaust herself. She may never find the central plot and all the intricate details and motivations behind it.
Ask the questions that get at the core, then zero in on that core and give your question words a break. The negative forms of the 5Ws + H can be helpful as well: who is this not about? Where are they definitely not going? What is she not trying to do or what is she trying not to do? Negating common questions can help winnow away the chaff and leave the wheat for harvest. If you start like a child, questions spilling out of your orifices and a fireball of energy fueling your typing hours, great. Use that. Then find your way to the central framework and send the extra questions on vacation. If you never move past gathering information, you never have the chance to turn your new knowledge into great writing.
A final observation on Kipling’s serving men is that he’s still their master. They can be as skilled and honest as possible, but if they’re only assigned to minor tasks, they can only produce minor results. As reliable as who, what, when, where, why, and how can be, it’s still important to use them to ask good questions.
David Sedaris’ recent MasterClass course argues that asking better questions is key to exposing people’s stories. Asking better questions of your story may expose its inner workings and help you build it faster and more effectively than you thought possible. If you’ve tried a dozen techniques and are still trying to dig your way out from under the rubble, try returning to the basics: ask the questions, then journal about the answers until you find your way.
What do you think of Kipling’s six honest serving men, and how do you use them in your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 8 Ways You Can Think Like A Journalist To Improve Your Writing and Struggling To Connect To Your Characters? Interview Them for more great advice on using questions to enhance your writing.