One day a chicken was standing on the side of the road.
Actually, he was staring at the road, a little lost, when someone stopped and asked him this question:
Speaking as a chicken, which came first… you, or the egg?”
To which the chicken, after pondering for a moment, replied, “Who cares. I’m just trying to figure out why I’d want to cross this thing in the first place.”
Which is a different question, equally cliché. Consider yourself foreshadowed here, because the punchline is your fate as a writer.
Ever had a great omelet made from bad eggs? Or a bad omelet made from perfectly good eggs? Ever smelled a bad egg? Ever had an egg that started out fine, but you played around with it for so long that it went bad?
Have you ever not been completely sure what to do with an egg? Hard boiled, scrambled, diced into a salad? Deep fried?
What then? Do you keep cooking? Or do you begin anew with a fresh egg, one you haven’t mucked up, perhaps leading to a different dish altogether?
And if you, the cook, don’t know what to do with the egg, especially a bad egg, where does that leave your hungry guest?
Of course I’m talking about storytelling here.
Our initial story ideas are very much like eggs. Precious, yet completely worthless until you do something with them. Not healthy or delicious until they’re cooked, seasoned and, if you consider yourself a chef, added to other ingredients and all gussied up, because presentation is everything.
How can something be precious and worthless at the same time?
Because it’s a paradox.
As is storytelling.
We evolve our eggs – the initial spark of inspiration – into something wonderful, called stories. When we do it right, our little cell of a story grows into something akin to a fully glorified banquet of dramatic possibilities… one that we, as the cooks in this literary kitchen, are obliged to bring forth. That is, if they are ever to be fit to consume. Otherwise the egg just sits there, getting old, until it smells up the joint.
Which brings us full circle. Because if the egg isn’t good, the meal will suffer for it. Which means, whether we begin with the egg (an idea), or we begin with the recipe (characters, setting and theme) and start mixing with the hope than an egg will soon appear… either way, which came first – chicken or egg – is no longer the point.
That’s why the chicken was staring at that road. He was squaring off with a different question altogether, caught in the paradox.
The paradox is why manuscripts go unpublished and dreams die. Because writers sometimes try to cook up bland ideas, stories with no compelling conceptual centerpiece. Bad eggs. Even when presented on fine china, the meal will be less than satisfying if the egg has gone bad.
Equally fatal is when the writer has a killer initial idea but doesn’t execute it well. Up to professional expectations and standards. Bad cooking. Or at least not enough cheese and oregano to go with that egg.A great idea does not a great story make.
Which comes first doesn’t matter.
It’s the wrong question.
We need both the chicken (all the moving parts) and the egg (a killer idea), and we are allowed to get to them in no particular order. As long as we get to both.
The good news is that this is only truly a paradox when the writer doesn’t completely understand the relationship between the egg and the chicken of your story. Or – analogy free for a moment – doesn’t juxtapose the weight of an idea in context to the balance and flavor and nourishment of the surrounding story elements.
Ever heard the term “all style, no substance” applied to a story? That’s a story without an egg somewhere in the mix. Vice versa, too: that’s a story that doesn’t live up to its inherent potential.The truth is that a successful story must have both an egg, and a recipe that stirs in all sorts of other goodness.
And therein resides the pothole in the road you, the chicken-wrangler in this analogy, need to cross. If you don’t recognize the duality of the necessity for both a strong conceptual egg and a delicious storytelling recipe, you’ll tumble keyboard-first into it.
And you likely won’t make it to the other side.
What kind of cook are you?
You can hatch an idea and begin to develop it into a story using a plan. Or, you can create a shell for an idea and go looking for it by drafting. Or a little of both.
Either way, it’s all the search for story. A base you must cover in writing any successful story.
As writers, we live and die by our ability to circle back and make sure our stories aren’t all broth and spice with no evidence of an egg anywhere in the mix. Our goal is to stir all the ingredients – egg and other goodies – into something that becomes a feast in excess of its independent parts.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side, of course. Duh. That cliché answer remains a paradox.
Writers, however, need a better answer. We need to get beyond the paradox of storytelling. For us, here’s the real answer: on the other side, where the readers are, awaits the full meal deal.
That’s where the egg was all along. Waiting to be found. Waiting to be given wings so it can turn into… a chicken.
The other side of the road is where the story is. Just watch out for those potholes.
Because however you get there, nobody gets to eat until you do.
Larry Brooks is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.” His website, Storyfix.com, is a leading resource for novelists and screenwriters at all levels. His latest book is “Warm Hugs for Writers,” with a free ebook offer available through his website.