Posted by: kimberlysullivan | April 18, 2014

The chicken and egg debate in writing

The Painted VeilI was think of the old expression ‘What came first the chicken, or the egg?’ as I was reading W. Somerset Maugham’s foreword to his fabulous The Painted Veil.

Maugham claims he always started his novels and short stories from a character, and the setting and story would naturally fall into place. In his foreword, he says that The Painted Veil (also adapted into a recent film) is the first novel he based on a story, and it took him years to bring it to life – finding suitable characters and a setting that would ring true.

The story that so struck a  chord in him is one he read as a young man on a  visit to Italy – a story from Dante’s Purgatorio, about a noble woman from Siena whose husband suspects her of infidelity and brings her to his castle in Italy’s Maremma district to die slowly of noxious fumes. When that proves too long a process, he has her thrown from  a castle window.

It took years for Maugham to return to that story, devising the characters (an English bacteriologist and his wife) and the setting – in colonial Hong Kong and then in 1920s China during a  cholera outbreak.

The chicken and the eggMaugham’s words got me thinking. I generally don’t start my story from either character or story, but – travel addict that I am – from a location. A particular place will stick in my mind, and I will start to develop the characters and plot lines from there.

But, as writers know, there are about a gazillion ways to get from point A to point B when writing a book, making it endlessly fascinating to learn how other writers work out the process.

And you, writers? Do you start from the characters, the story, the setting, or something entirely different?

Whatever your writing process in developing your ideas – happy writing inspiration!


  1. That’s a question that keeps dividing writers. Some swear that character driven stories are the only stories worth of interest. Others say that plot is the motor. The best writers master both. As a reader I like both. And like you, setting matters to me as a reader and a writer too.
    I am working on two pieces now, one short story in French and one novel in English and in both of them the setting plays a role.
    Also I wanted to tell you that I purchased the e version of Far Away. It is a good compilation of stories. And I read yours with interest and pleasure. Congrats!

    • How wonderful to be working on your French and English stories at the same time. Brava! And thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the stories in Far Away. I usually announce the call for contributions when it comes out in late spring or early summer, and I hope you will participate this year!

  2. I’m with Maugham – I start with character – although in my current project a premise actually stepped forward first, but then came my character, which then helped flesh out the premise into plot.

    I think it’s really interesting to know that place or setting is what spurs a story forward for you. I know that setting can play a large role in a lot of novels, but I guess I hadn’t really considered that this also plays a role in the story’s conception by the authors. I have a trip planned in June where I will be on a plane or on a bus for a lot of it and instead of looking at the craziness of it all, I’ve decided to look upon it as an opportunity that it might create a story for me to write. The places I pass through might just create that next inspiration!

    • Hi Janet – oh, yes. Sounds as if you’re looking at the journey positively. I agree that can serve as inspiration – and provide a wonderful opportunity for people-watching that might just spark that next story.

  3. I am like Maugham. I start from the character and dig deep into the character’s soul…
    I love reading Somerset Maugham, by the way.

    • Thanks, Julia. I love the stories that dig deep into characters, so I’m happy to hear that’s how you enter a story. I adore Maugham’s short stories especially, although I have read a lot of criticism of his work by contemporaries claiming that he travelled widely, listened to other people’s stories, and then they all made their way into his stories, virtually unchanged. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but I still love reading them… : )

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