Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?

Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?

farm10 Suppose you’ve never heard that one before, and someone casually asked you this question. You might recognize the question as a set-up for the punch line, then run potential answers through your mind.

Was something chasing the chicken?
Was there birdfeed on the other side?
Was he returning home for the day? (yes I know that would make him a rooster)
Was his wife calling?
Were his chicks in trouble?
Was the coop on fire?
Was a storm brewing?

You start thinking about motivations, about what could possess a chicken to cross a road. At least nowadays roads can be treacherous with speeding cars and trucks. You might sense some conflict in that statement, as the chicken is clearly taking direct action, perhaps against a perceived threat or opportunity.

What’s happening is that the author of this riddle (unknown) is setting up the reader for a surprise, for a twist. He’s taking everything he suspects you know about riddles, jokes, stories, and using that to invent an ending that will surprise and enlighten you. One hundred thousand word novels should be no different.

This reminds me of the ending of Gran Torino (Major Spoiler if you haven’t seen it which I highly recommend). The writer of the screenplay Nick Schenk sets up to believe that Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)  is hell-bent on revenge and about to shoot it up with the local gang of rapists. So he confronts the gang, reaches his hand into his pocket, pulls it out quickly, and is summarily gunned down by the gang. Except…he wasn’t armed at all. Schenk had all the clues in there to Walt’s real intentions, but the audience is led to believe that he is out for vigilante justice. In that instant, the entire meaning and theme of the movie has changed.

Think about how you are setting up your readers. Are you telegraphic everything, or laying subtle hints along the way? When your readers get to the equivalent line as

To get to the other side

are they surprised at how simple yet profound the ending is? The Chicken/Road riddle works because we’re completely thrown off by the question. How can something so simple be the answer? In tons of books, the Hero eventually “does the right thing.” It’s as simple as crossing the road. It’s kind of a basic premise of all fiction, to illustrate moral values. Yet with everything else going on, it’s amazing how confused characters can become. So in literary terms, we can then convert the Chicken/Road riddle to the basic riddle underlying all literature:

Q: Why does the Main Character go on all these adventures, endure hardships, fight villains, survive ordeals, and save the world from total annihilation?
(select the text of the answer with a mouse or type ctrl-a to reveal it)

A: Because that’s what he does.

Now for those thinking this post was about something else, here are some Chicken/Road jokes I’ve stolen off the Internets.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road halfway?
A: She wanted to lay it on the line.
Q: Why did the rubber chicken cross the road?
A: She wanted to stretch her legs.
Q: Why did the Roman chicken cross the road?
A: She was afraid someone would caesar!
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To prove to the possum it could actually be done!
Q: Why did the dead chicken cross the road?
A: I don’t know but I’m not hanging around to find out!
Q: Why did the Rooster cross the road?
A: Why that’s where the chickens are!
Q: Why did the schizo chicken cross the road?
A: So they could get to the other side.

Okay I made a couple of those up.

Next Week: How the Chicken vs. Egg riddle applies to Character Development.


  1. Okay. Raise of hands of anyone who either
    1) Read the whole post...for which I humbly apologize.
    2) Was "taken" by my joke
    3) Thought that this post was in any way serious.

    I think at some point I thought I had a point to this post but I just lost it. And no, there will NOT be a future post comparing Chicken/Egg to character development.


  2. I read the whole post, found it interesting.

    I wasn't swept away with humor by your joke, but your answer to this question

    Why does the Main Character go on all these adventures, endure hardships, fight villains, survive ordeals, and save the world from total annihilation?

    reminded me, for some reason, of that line in the movie Joe Dirt.

    How exactly does the posi-trac rear end on a Plymouth work? It just does.

    Have a great Friday!

  3. Yes, I read your whole post. The chicken crossed the road because the grass was greener on the other side *groan*. I liked your post in reference to thinking about your characters journeys and how you're delivering that ending to your readers. Have a great weekend!

  4. Raising my hand. I giggled all the way through the post :)

    Favorite is the schizo chicken one!

    And, cool little trick, making us highlight text for "because they do".

    Gran Torino is a freaking awesome movie.

  5. I'm in the midst of rereading the fourth book in Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series and by chance just finished the part where the "I-don't-take-anything-seriously" character in the group of traveling companions saves the day by stumping a psychotic train with a silly joke after the train was able to solve the more intricate riddles offered by the other travelers. Eddie's joke? "Why did the dead baby cross the road? It was stapled to the chicken." So yes, you had to know the "body" of chicken crossing the road jokes (such as it is ... and I liked yours a lot) and such. Very interesting :)

  6. Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
    A: To prove to the possum it could actually be done!

    That one suits my sense of humor the most.

    Yeah, I read the whole thing, and yes, I took the post with a modicum of seriousness. Light hearted as it was, the point was adequately made with :

    Q: Why does the Main Character go on all these adventures, endure hardships, fight villains, survive ordeals, and save the world from total annihilation?

    I liked the answer; and the way I had to discover it. Seriously, I thought of lots of answers but that simple one escaped me. Which makes me wonder about myself, because one of my favorite fantasy novel has a character (Belgarion) who is constantly asking the "why me" question. And his grandfather finally answers simply with something like: Would you trust anyone else to do this? If you could walk away, would you?

    I think Dumbledore asks Harry Potter a similar question.

    Your analysis of why the chicken question is asked, and how the joke sets up the recipient for a lot of thinking is well devised. What motivates our characters is a serious question, and I like how you addressed it.

    And for the record, Gran Torino was an excellent movie, and I think you were spot on with your diversion analogy.


  7. *raises hand*

    Yes, I read the whole post. I giggled at your joke, and I thought this was serious for most of the way through. Still, this does give me some things to think about for the ending of my book. Thanks!

  8. I saw Shutter Island last night. Another case where if you follow the clues, the ending is obvious, but there is a lot of deliberate misdirection.

    @Kat: That is one of the great mysteries of the Universe...

    @Lisa: It's all one big setup...

    @Sara: Just make the text white. It's still there, just can't see it.

    @KLo: I'll have to read that one

    @Donna: When I was younger, I often pondered that question. Things like "why is Superman Superman?" Why is this particular character the hero in this story? Or Why does he get to be the hero? Almost like I'm annoyed at the author's choice for the hero. I eventually came to understand that he's the hero because without that character, there is no story. But, sometimes I feel like the hero of a particular story doesn't deserve to be the hero. Probably another blog post for another day, but I think it's critical for authors to establish exactly why this character deserves to benefit from the circumstances of the story.

    @Glam: Glad you liked it!

    I like the concept of "spoiler". Is there anything in your book, if the reader knew it beforehand or read it in a review, that would "spoil" the book for the reader? If this question is too hard to come up with an answer, you might want to add some misdirection into the book.

  9. I really really enjoyed this post, and yes I did consider it in a serious fashion.

    I really thought the answer to the hero's question was going to be "to get to the other side" because if you really look at it the story is a journey and once you start walking on that road the only path you really have is to get to the other side of it.

  10. I think sometimes we overcomplicate and confuse our own plots because we forget the simplicity is what works. That's the magic of beautiful literature. If we try to overwork and overplot, it shows. Readers expect a twist, so sometimes the simple answer 'because he does' is the twist.

    Excellent post, Andrew! I know you say you forgot halfway through what your point was, but I got something deep out of this post. It actually helped me with a story I'm working on.


    Happy week -


    from the desk of a writer

  11. For those hoping for the chicken/egg metaphor for character dev, someone just posted this blog which pretty much sums it up:


Constructive comments are welcome.
OpenID Required.