Unexpected — The Beginning, Middle and End

When little time exists during an interview or when I receive quick questions after a speaking engagement, the number one question everyone asks is, “What’s the single most important thing I need to understand about story structure?”

My answer is straightforward, “Your story needs to have a beginning, middle and end.”

At that point the person stops listening because they think they know how to make it happen. They are sorely disappointed that I haven’t given them a secret Easter egg of success. But I have and they’ve missed it.

All great stories are about movement, change and growth. The movement is reflected in the pacing and universal questions raised within the story. The change is based on circumstances and how it affects the character. And, the growth is the development of the character. The only way to demonstrate these issues and effects is through a three-act structure that has a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning is all about the character’s typical life in contrast to his dreams – Defined as the thesis world. The middle is about the character overcoming obstacles or battles, as circumstances keep the character from his dreams – Defined as the anti-thesis world. The end is all about how the character succeeds at overcoming his obstacles and ends up with his dream, but not as expected – Defined as the new thesis world.

If there is no beginning, the audience can’t care about the character or relate to him. They can’t understand his dreams in contrast to his daily mundane life. Nor can they care to watch the rest of the film because they weren’t able to connect with him or be emotionally charged enough to care. But with a beginning properly in place, the audience will cheer him on to achieving his dreams.

If the middle is missing, the audience won’t be excited about the character’s achievement. It’s only when we watch someone continue to preserver through the toughest of situations that we applaud their accomplishment, having overcome numerous obstacles. Also, without a middle, the audience can’t see past the normal or mundane. There is no need for hope or achievement, just status quo, which doesn’t make for a very good story.

If the story has no end, then the audience feels ripped off. For it’s in the ending that we find hope of success and a new way of living. It contrasts the mundane or excessively difficult world we sometimes face and it provides a new hope for our own lives. We no longer see life from the point of us not being good enough or being squelched by the world. Instead we see a new hope that causes us to realize that we can make a permanent impact in our own life.

So, the most important part of story structure is having a beginning, middle and end.

And, not the kind that a person says is the beginning, middle and end, but a real one.

I recently talked with a filmmaker who stated that his short had a beginning middle and end. After watching it, I was not able to see all three elements. In other words, his film drove me to not care, see no practical demonstration of success, and take no hope into my own life. He had fooled himself into thinking there was a story structure in place when it didn’t exist.

All stories must have a beginning, middle and end, or it isn’t a story.

What do you feel are the most important elements of story structure?


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