Here’s some info for writers who are not quite sure where the “beginning, middle and end” of their story should be. How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy is a great book by Orson Scott Card.
We had the fortunate opportunity to see Orson Scott Card speak at a convention last year. He is a great guy, and cares a lot about helping amateur writers with advice. He led a workshop session where audience members collaborated to create a new science-fiction world, by asking “Why,” and “To what result/effect”. This was a great way to establish a cause-and-effect chain, and if the cause-and-effect chain is worked out in some detail, it can be an excellent story setting and a springboard for a number of stories. This was quite interesting as well… I will elaborate more on this if there is interest.
Anyway, there is a section in the book called “The MICE Quotient” which I will summarize a bit (though you should really get the book if this material looks interesting.)
The MICE Quotient
All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event. While each is present in every story, there is generally one that dominates the others. Which one dominates? The one that the author cares about most…
The Milieu Story
…Every story has a milieu, but in some stories the milieu is the thing the storyteller cares about the most. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels… the whole point of the story was for the audience to see all the strange lands where Gulliver travelled… So it would have been absurd to begin by spending a lot of time on Gulliver’s childhood and upbringing…
As you work with your story, if you realize that what you care about most is having a stranger explore and discover the world you’ve created, chances are that you’ll want to follow the Milieu story structure. Then your beginning point is obvious — when the stranger arrives — and the ending is just as plain — the story doesn’t end until he leaves (or in a variant, he finally decides not to leave ending the question of going home.
The Idea Story
Ideas in this sense are the new bits of information that are discovered in the process of the story by characters who did not previously know that information. Idea stories are about the process of finding out that information. The structure here is very simple: the idea story begins by raising a question; it ends when the question is answered.
Most mystery stories follow the structure. The story begins when a murder takes place; the question we ask is, who did it and why? The story ends when the identity and motive of the killer are revealed…
The Character Story
All stories have characters, and in one sense stories are almost always “about” one or more characters. In most stories, though, the tale is not about the character’s character; that is, the story is not about who the character is.
The Character Story is a story about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him…
It is a common misconception that all good stories must have full characterization. This is not quite true. All good Character Stories must have full characterization, because that’s what they are about; and other kinds of stories can have full characterization, as long as the reader is not misled into expecting a Character Story, when that is not what is going to be delivered. On the other hand, many excellent Milieu, Idea, and Event Stories spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving…
Having said that, I must also point out that to be taken seriously as a writer… you must be able to draw interesting and believable characters; and a most stories are improved when the author is skillful at characterization. But only when the story is about the transformation of the character’s role in his community to you have a true Character Story.
The structure of a Character Story is as simple as any of the others. The story begins at the moment when the main character becomes so unhappy, impatient, or angry in his person role that he begins the process of change; and it and this when the character either settles into the new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not)…
Characters in the other kinds of story can change too, though they don’t have to. You can embed character stories and subplots within the Milieu, Event, and Idea stories, but in that case the characters’ changes are not the climax of the whole work, not the signal to the reader that the story is over, that the tension of the tale is now released…
If the transformation of character is what you care about most in the story you want to tell, then identify which character’s changes trigger all the other transformations. That’s your main character, and your story begins when he just can’t take it anymore.
The Event Story
In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe; the world is out of order. In the ancient tradition of Romance (as opposed to the modern publishing category), this can include the appearance of a monster (Beowulf), the “unnatural” murder of the King by his brother (Hamlet), or a guest by his host and (Macbeth)… In all cases, a previous order… has been disrupted and the world is in flux, a dangerous place.
The Event Story ends at the point where a new order is established, or, more rarely, where the old order is restored, or, rarest of all, where the world descends into chaos as the forces of order are destroyed. The story begins, not the point where the world becomes disordered, but rather at the point where the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. Hamlet doesn’t begin with a murder of Hamlet’s father; it begins much later, when the ghost appears to Hamlet and involves him in the struggle to remove the usurper and re-establish the proper order of the kingdom.
End of quoted material.
Now it occurs to me that you don’t necessarily need to know which story is the “main event” in order to start writing. Or, you may start writing thinking it is one kind of story and then decide later that it should be told with a different focus, and you might move the beginning, middle and end around a bit. As Card points out, all stories will have all four elements, and you just need to pick one to focus on, sometimes before or during the first draft, sometimes after finishing the first draft.
For example, a Character story about a young person coming of age can be embedded within a larger Event story about the Revolution happening within his country – the story might begin well after the Revolution has started and the war may not be over or resolved by the time the story wraps up. Similarly, the Character story might encompass the whole book, but there might be an Idea story covering a chapter or two where the main character is trying to find out the answer to a mystery, like who his real parents are.
Recognizing where the story fits in the the larger world-story, and where the smaller stories fit within yours, could make it easier to find the beginning, middle and end. If you don’t know all the answers, don’t worry about it; just start writing anyway, but when you are not sitting there writing, you can spend some of your spare time thinking about the sub-story and meta-story. You can even jump back and forth between stories when you are stuck on one or the other — you don’t have to make a commitment that will bracket your writing right now. Perhaps you will end up with the middle and end of one story, and a good beginning for another, which is a nice problem to have.