Writing Assignment: Reduce A Story To Just A Beginning, Middle, & End

by Randy Murray on April 27, 2012

Telling a story is both a natural human action and one of the most difficult of art forms to master. Oral storytelling is one of the earliest and most central of human experiences. Writing builds upon this experience. We sometimes think of telling and writing stories as merely a form of entertainment, but there’s much more to it.

There is a lot to learn: the development of characters, the specification of place and setting, finding revealing actions and events that move the story on, the tone and voice used by the writer. But the essential parts, the bones, are the key structures of story. They are most crucial elements and you must start with them. Although it may seem simple, you must first master the beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of a story doesn’t mean the very beginning of everything. My youngest daughter, when she was little, use to have a problem with where to begin a story. If we asked, “How was your field trip?” she’d start her story from the moment she woke up that day. Even questions that required only a “yes” or “no” often took twenty minutes or so for her to recount. She wanted to tell us about EVERYTHING. Over the years she learned the right place to start her stories. You need to learn that, too. Don’t start your stories with “13 billion years ago the universe was created in a big bang.” Start, instead, at the latest possible moment that will allow your readers to enter into the story.

The middle of the story is where events and actions take place and the reader learns more fully who the characters in the story are.  In the middle, the reader gets enough information to understand all of the key points of the story, but doesn’t yet have the outcome, the resolution.  A good story isn’t merely a listing of all the things happened. A good story unfolds, action by action, scene by scene, revealing more and more of itself as it goes on, building suspense, or posing questions to be answered, revealing character, packing in clues, or whatever is necessary to keep the reader’s interest while revealing the story, a little at a time.

And the end. The end of a story isn’t the end of everything. The end of a well-told story is the point where the tale is complete. The ending isn’t the interruption of a sequence of events. It’s the point where a reader can pause and say, “Ah!” It’s the ending, in fact, that makes something a story. Without a good ending, you’re just rambling on. Your ending should be a revelation, a realization for the reader, a sudden clarity as to what has happened, and why. A punchline makes a joke, but a story requires an end, not necessarily a resolution to absolutely everything. It is a clear stopping place. With that end readers can turn the whole thing over in their minds and examine it and understand it. It’s how the tiger got its stripes, how this girl became a princess, how I came to this place.

For example, let’s take a story that many people know: Star Wars.

Beginning: Orphan farm boy yearns for adventure and finds a mentor and some new, strange friends.

Middle: Boy learns that he is special and has access to a supernatural force, but he loses his mentor and must rely on himself and his friends.

End: The boy, using the supernatural force and with help from his friends, triumphs against overwhelming odds.

I can hear you already sputtering, “But, but . . .!”  Yes, I’ve stripped out the characters and all of the “and this happens next”. And the robots and space battles. That’s all important, but it’s not the underlying structure. Even the name “The Force” isn’t important. The story resonates because of the structure. Great characters and interesting things that happen are the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle: essential, but in themselves they don’t make for a cogent picture. This is why the original Star Wars is a great movie and why “The Phantom Menace” is a complete mess.

The beginning, middle, and end aren’t the plot points. These are the stages, the essential sections of the story. Selecting where to start a story and providing just enough so the reader or listener is invested in learning the outcome, developing it fully, and then bringing it to a satisfying resolution, are the fundamental places to start with telling a story. Even when you tell a story out of sequence you still have a clear three part structure.

For today’s assignment, take a familiar story or tale and boil it down to just a beginning, middle, and end. Leave out the plot points, character development, and settings. Just find and lay out the most basic structure.

You can select your story from your life, from favorite movies, even fairy tales. But boil it down and strip it of everything but this essential structure. This process will reveal things to you that you many not have known about that story.

For bonus points, make this a regular exercise for your writer’s notebook, distilling movies and stories as you read, see, or hear them.

We’ll return with more story writing assignments.


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