Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne.
In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
My name is Valerie Francis and today I’m bringing you a deep dive into the Beginning, Middle and End of a story. This is the presentation I gave at the Story Grid Live event we held last month in Nashville, TN. Or, a reasonable facsimile of it anyway.
So join me for a quick bite of writing insight, starting right now.
I want you to think about the story you’re working on right now and the challenges you’re having with it. Those problems made you go looking for answers, which brought you to Story Grid.
But as soon as you found the answer to that one question you had, you were hit with a tidal wave of story knowledge — The Story Grid book, the flagship podcast, this podcast, the Fundamental Fridays posts, not to mention all the courses!
Now you’ve got a whole new problem. You’re completely overwhelmed and you’re trying to figure out how to take all these story principles — point of view, narrative drive, the power of ten, obligatory scenes, value shift, exposition as ammunition, the five commandments in every unit of story – and make a book out of them.
What if I told you that there’s a very simple way to do it — and it’s been staring you in the face this whole.
In just a few minutes, I’ll remind you of what that is.
At our Story Grid Live event in Nashville recently, Shawn and Tim asked me to talk about the Beginning, Middle and End of a story because it’s a first principle of storytelling; and, it’s one of the Editor’s Six Core Questions.
The beginning, middle and end refers to the three act structure of stories. Now, this idea of three acts causes some confusion. People latch on to the number 3 and immediately start asking about one-act plays, or films that have four acts (with a midpoint shift in the middle), or stories with five acts. And that’s true, a story can have more than three acts, but no matter how you slice it, every story—without exception—has a beginning, middle and end; that’s the three acts Shawn is talking about. For stories with more than three acts, what is typically happening, is that the writer is breaking the middle down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
So far, this sounds like a pretty easy concept to understand. There’s nothing earth-shattering here; it seems obvious. And because of that we tend to skip over it quickly, but here’s what you need to understand:
It’s not just that every story has a beginning, middle and end. It’s that each of these parts of a story has a function and if your acts aren’t functioning properly, your story won’t work.
The purpose of Act I (the beginning) is to hook your reader. It’s to let her know what kind of story she’s going to be told. It’s to establish the genre, the objects of desire and so on, and to set up things that will be paid off later.
Act II (the middle) is all about upping the ante, raising the stakes and progressively complicating the situation for your protagonist. It builds the conflict and the tension until your hero reaches her lowest point.
In Act III (the end), all the things that you set up get paid off. Either the hero gets what she wants and needs, or she doesn’t, and that outcome has to happen in a way that is both surprising and inevitable.
So that’s the high-level, or macro view, of the beginning, middle and end. But like everything else about story, there’s a micro view as well because running through these three acts is something called a story spine, and it too has a function. Creating a strong spine is essential. Readers track it subconsciously and without it, your story will fall apart and your reader will lose interest. Most people read a book a year, and they read it through only once, so you can’t mess around with this. Your story, and the part of your life that you spend writing it, is on the line.
What makes the story spine so important? Well, it keeps the global genre from wandering, it keeps the value shifts on track, it articulates the objects of desire, it gets the reader to become emotionally involved with the protagonist and her story, and it ratchets up the story’s tension. And that’s just for starters.
The story spine is made up of those 15 Core Scenes we talk about all the time. That is, the 5 Commandments of Storytelling for each of the three acts.
The Level Up Your Craft course offers a deeper dive into the story spine than I’m able to go into here. If you just want to take one course, or if you’re wondering where to start, I strongly suggest that you take LUYC first. Subscribe to Story Grid’s mailing list at storygrid.com to be notified when the course opens for registration again.
It’s not enough to understand the theory behind the beginning, middle and end. As writers, we have to be able to apply it to our novels. So how do we do that?
For this, let’s review the units of story. From biggest to smallest we have the global story, the acts, the sequences, the scenes and the beats. The units we want to pay closest attention to right now are the global story, the act and the scene.
Start by describing your entire story in one sentence; one short sentence, not a run-on sentence that takes up a page.
Then, describe each of the three acts in one sentence. Again, make it a short sentence.
Finally, articulate each of the three acts according to the 5 Commandments of Storytelling. In other words, what are the five key scenes in each act?
Let me give you an example from The Riders of High Rock, a Hopalong Cassidy novel I just read.
In one sentence, the global story is as follows: Hopalong Cassidy stops the cattle rustlers and restores peace to the town.
The global story in three sentences (one for each act) goes like this: Hopalong Cassidy discovers that cattle is being rustled. Cassidy goes after the rustlers but gets shot. Cassidy tracks down the outlaws; he captures some and kills others.
If we break each of these sentences into the 5 Commandments of Storytelling, it sounds like this:
Beginning Hook — When Hopalong Cassidy discovers that Jack Bolt is about to rustle cattle from the 3TL, 3F and 4H ranches, he must decide whether he will stay in Tascotal and help the ranchers (thereby putting his own life at risk), or continue on to Montana (thereby allowing the cattle to be stolen and the ranchers livelihoods to be destroyed). He decides to stay and recruits Red Connors and Joe Gamble to help him.
Middle Build — When Hopalong Cassidy and his gang lose the trail of the stolen cattle, Cassidy must decide whether he’ll abandon his pursuit of the rustlers or have his gang split up and search in different directions. They split up and Hopalong finds the cattle but is shot by Pod Griffin.
Ending Payoff — When Red Connors finds evidence of Bolt’s guilt, Hopalong must decide whether to let the sheriff deal with the outlaws (thereby giving Bolt a chance to escape) or go after them himself (putting his own life, and the lives of Red and Joe), in danger. He goes after Bolt himself and shoots him in self-defence.
If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you’ll notice that this is the kind of summary we give at the beginning of each episode.
Now that you understand that the Beginning, Middle, End is a 3-Act structure that provides a framework for your story, and this framework has a spine, I’m going to ask that question I asked at the beginning of this episode.
How are you going to take this avalanche of story theory and make a novel out of it?
How can you keep from switching genres partway through your story, or getting so frustrated you give up?
How can you create a novel that it is so compelling, it grabs the reader on the first page and keeps her on the edge of her seat until the last page?
The answer, of course, is that you’ll use this Beginning, Middle, and End structure, making sure each act is doing what it’s supposed to do. And you’ll create a really strong story spine because every element of your story relies on it—it’s the foundation that all the other story principles are built upon.
Off the top I said that the way to avoid overwhelm has been staring us in the face. And it has been. It’s called the Editor’s Six Core Questions. These are the fundamentals of storytelling, and the beginning, middle and end is such an important concept that Shawn broke it down even further into the 15 Core Scenes which make up three-quarters of the Story Grid Global Foolscap. When you understand what these principles are and how they serve your story, you’ll be well on your way.
I’ll be exploring the beginning, middle and end, as well as the story spine, in a book that will be published next year. In the meantime, if you want to find out how I use the Story Grid method to draft and edit my own novels, join my inner circle. Go to valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle to sign up.
Join us for another Bite Size Episode next week. The Editor Roundtable Podcast will return with full length episodes on December 18.