What's "The Scorpion and the Frog" Fable and Why Do People Reference It?
The Scorpion and the Frog fable is often referenced in film and television, but what makes this story so important?
I was not aware of The Scorpion and the Frog fable until I had met with a few development executives out here in sunny Los Angeles and they all referenced it. Knowing it's meaning pretty important when talking about story.
When I tracked the legend back to its source, I was surprised to see that there were TONS of references to The Scorpion and the Frog across pop culture. There's even a website with a list of instances.
Today we're going to go over this allegory, see why it's sneaked its way into countless movies and TV shows, and how it may inform your writing process even if you don't know it.
So let's ford this river together.
Where did The Scorpion and the Frog come from?
So according to Wikipedia, the earliest publication of this allegory is from the 1944 book The Hunter of the Pamirs: A Novel of Adventure in Soviet Central Asia by Georgi Tushkan. The legend didn't really take shape until it was featured in the 1955 film Mr. Arkadin in a soliloquy delivered by Orson Welles.
That speech by Welles went down in movie history. Richard Brody, of The New Yorker, had this to say about Welles in that movie:
"The most famous moment of this extraordinary, and unjustly unrecognized, movie, from 1954 (and released the next year in a mutilated version), is a soliloquy that Arkadin delivers to his entourage. It stands on its own as a beacon of pulp philosophy while offering a self-definition that is as much a boast as a lament: the parable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion, while being ferried across a river by a frog, stings it, thus killing the frog and drowning himself in the process:
"Logic, cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him, there is no logic in this! I know, said the scorpion, but I can’t help it. It’s my character. Arkadin then exhorts his entourage, “Let’s drink to character.”
"Logic", cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him, "there is no logic in this!" "I know" said the scorpion, "but I can’t help it. It’s my character."
Let's look at the actual fable to see what we can take away.
The Scorpion and the Frog Fable
This is my retelling. I didn't find a definitive version.
"A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a babbling stream. It's too treacherous to cross, so the scorpion nicely asks the frog to carry him across on its back. This makes the frog a little suspicious. It asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” That sound reasoning relaxes the frog's nerves. So he allows the scorpion to climb aboard and they shove off across the flowing water. They get halfway across the stream and the scorpion stings the frog directly in the middle of his back. The frog feels the onset of the scorpion's poison and starts to sink. He manages one dying breath: "Why?!" And the scorpion replies: “It’s my nature…”
The Moral of The Scorpion and the Frog
Man, what a downer, am I right?
The moral of this fable is that like the scorpion, humans possess compulsions that they cannot repress even when it is in their best interest. On the flip side, the frog is a testament to being way too trusting. In the end, the biggest takeaway is that it's very important to know someone at their core and make judgments based on that.
There is another important way to look at the fable as it applies to story structure. Often times the second act of a story relates to how a character is attemping to "change" in order to reach an important goal. Maybe it's their foray into a new world, to leave behind what they were and transform.
In a tragedy, this attempt often fails. This is very much what happens in the Scorpion and the Frog.
Take the example of a movie like The Wrestler.
In act two of the film, the main character attempts to fix his life, change his nature and pick up the pieces. Ultimately he is faced with his own reality. He is what he is. This leopard can't change his spots. To mix in another animal metaphor.
The Scorpion and the Frog in Film and Television
As I mentioned before, this fable has dominated pop culture. It shows up in political cartoons, internet memes, and our favorite film and television shoes. Here's a great example from The Crying Game, which is a criminally underrated movie.
If you've seen the movie, then you know it's about the complicated feelings of love and infatuation, and going against what you deem as nature to explore romance with someone you never thought would be possible.
On the lighter side, The Simpsons did an entire episode on the allegory, where, during a field trip, Lisa discovers desert water that makes usually combative creatures get along; after getting kicked out of the retirement home, Grampa comes to live with the family.
The Scorpion and the Frog in Drive
Perhaps the most talked about instance of The Scorpion and the Frog comes from Drive, where our hero is the Scorpion on Ryan Gosling's jacket. And Ryan Gosling.
In a review of Drive, critic Peter Canavese states:
"Above all, there's Gosling's anti-hero, the picture's still, quiet center. The scorpion on the back of his jacket alludes to the fable of the scorpion and the frog (famously appropriated by Orson Welles in his "Mr. Arkadin"). The driver's nature is to sting, but he finds himself in the role of rescuer. So Refn asks you: Does he look like a good guy to you?"
How can you use The Scorpion and the Frog?
Think about every character you write. What's their nature? Are you writing a story about them feeding into their impulses or struggling to change? When you walk away from your story, what should the audience feel? While I'm not saying every movie or pilot should include this allegory, it's certainly something to use in your ideation stage.
The next time you sit down to write, decide if your character is a scorpion or a frog!
What's next? Read some terrible writing advice!
We've all heard some terrible writing advice in our lives. It might have been from so-called "experts," professors, or even in an unhelpful YouTube tutorial, but there are good writing lessons at the heart of every bad note. Let's look at a few together to see what you can glean.
Click the link to learn more!