When I first thought of writing about the basic three act structure of stories I had hoped that I could do it with a single, if rather longish, post. As I began writing it I found I was constantly self-editing to try and reduce the length of the post and in the process I was ‘skimming over’ concepts instead of giving them their proper due. I also know that as you read this post you’re going to have questions about all sorts of other types of story beginnings: what about Prologues, or in medias res or flashbacks? These, and others, are all variations on a theme and should be used with care and only in specific circumstance that can’t be handled in any other way. In my story Æsir Dawn I have a Prologue simply because there is no other way to get an essential plot-point across. However, that Prologue stands largely apart from the main body of the story, which, strangely enough, begins at the beginning of the protagonist’s story. It is my intention to visit these various ‘other’ beginnings in a later post, but for the moment I am simply looking at the basic structure of storytelling, so let’s get to it and start where every story must start: The Beginning.
Just what is the beginning and what is its purpose? According to Aristotle in Poetics, “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.” And, according to Gustav Freytag in his Technique of the Drama, “Since it is the business of the introduction of the drama to explain the place and time of the action, the nationality and life relations of the hero, it must at once briefly characterize the environment. Besides, the poet will have opportunity here, as in a short overture, to indicate the peculiar mood of the piece, as well as the time, the greater vehemence or quiet with which the action moves forward.” It must be noted that both Aristotle and Freytag are talking about plays on a stage, with all its associated restrictions of time and space, and not written stories. That being said, their observations are valid none-the-less. To paraphrase both Aristotle and Freytag, one may say that the beginning of a story must not follow on from any other cause and must introduce the time, place and major characters as well as the ‘tone’ of the work.
But how does the writer decide where the beginning of the story actually is? The first thing the writer must decide is whose story it is, and that’s not always as easy as it sounds. In my last post I had the idea for a story, now provisionally titled Hard Rayne, which is about an interplanetary blockade-runner who, requiring planetary support to avoid attackers, forms an intense relationship with his female ground support. What he doesn’t know is that his female ground support is, in reality, an AI computer program. And, what the controllers of this ground support facility don’t realise is, this particular ground support program has developed self-awareness and fallen in love with ‘her’ blockade-runner. But whose story is it, the blockade-runner’s or the AI’s—or even the ground controller’s, and where does it start?
Such a choice can only be made once you have a complete story idea as opposed to the scene fragments that I usually start with. (If you look at the page Hard Rayne you’ll see that what follows was written before I had the complete story idea developed and, as such, the decision of whose story it is is still in flux) And, in deciding whose story it is, you need to weigh up the storytelling opportunities that each choice will open up for you and, just as importantly, all the options for storytelling you will lose. And you must make a choice of one character over all others; you can’t have your cake and eat it too, because then all you’ll end up with is a mud pie. But the choice of whose story it is isn’t just confined to choosing the best POV character; it’s also an integral part of deciding where to start the story. So, as you consider who is the best character to tell the story about, you need to keep considering where you’d start their story—and how. In deciding where and how to start the story, you have to consider how you will introduce to the reader the time, place and environment in which the story is set (the milieu) as well as all the major players who will strut their stuff upon your stage. But, before I get to that, let me attempt to dispel some rather odd notions people develop about how long a story’s beginning actually is.
In the three act structure we have the beginning, the middle and the end. When thinking about these three acts, a lot of people tend to fall into one of two camps: That each act is roughly the same length, or that the beginning is one chapter and the end is a chapter, or a few pages, where everything is resolved while the middle makes up the majority of the story. If only things were that simple. The sad, and really difficult truth is that the length of each act is totally dependant on each individual story. Take George Lucas’ Star Wars as an example, and I will be using Star Wars to demonstrate a number of storytelling myths and conventions. The beginning of Star Wars takes up practically the entire first half of the movie, right up to the point where they are caught by the Death Star’s tractor beam. I know a lot of people will argue with this idea, insisting that the beginning ends at some earlier point but, if you consider it carefully, the story is Luke Skywalker’s story and he doesn’t begin to change and grow until he is on board the Death Star. Up to that point he is essentially a passenger, passive and static. Everything up to that point is only concerned with introducing major characters and the essential problem, the dramatic dilemma that needs to be resolved, the destruction of the Death Star.
In thinking about where to start Hard Rayne, I finally settled on the story being about Jack Rayne rather than the AI or anyone else. (At the time of writing I still haven’t satisfactorily resolved this yet) The reason was simple. In thinking about beginning the story in the AI character’s POV, I realised there would have to be a lot more back-story exposition to explain the milieu and who and what she (the AI) was than if I started with Jack. However, this decision came at a cost; expressing the emotional anguish suffered by my self-aware AI. (Which I’m beginning to think I can do successfully) The other thing that swayed me was that I initially thought I could start the story off with a bang! An opening scene as Jack plummets planetward chased by aliens trying to shoot him down, a scene full of fire and movement, exasperation and courage—all the things to make for an exciting start, just like the opening scene in Star Wars. After all, every good story opening needs movement and colour to hook the reader in, doesn’t it? And I could get them to identify with both Jack and the AI in one dramatic opening scene as they interacted with each other. Great!
Then a cooler head prevailed; I had forgotten the purpose of the beginning—the beginning of a story must not follow on from any other cause and must introduce the time, place and major characters as well as the ‘tone’ of the work. Oops!
Take two: Jack Rayne preparing for his first flight trying to get out of the Earth’s gravity-well before being vaporised by the blockading aliens: But why this choice? As I said above, the purpose of the beginning is to introduce the major characters, and this is particularly essential in the case of the protagonist. But more than that, in the beginning you need to show your hero in his natural environment where the status quo prevails. In Jack’s case, a blockaded Earth and the only means available to humanity to break that blockade—launching ships in a suicidal attempt to escape into the wider solar system to collect essential raw materials. That’s the environment Jack lives in, and has now joined as a rookie pilot. As you can see, such a beginning, as he prepares for the flight, allows me, the writer, to naturally reveal some of Jack’s history, and some of the history of the conflict. It allows me to introduce the AI and, hopefully, show the blossoming relationship (or is that obsession) when I move to scenes in the AI’s POV. The reality is that Jack’s story with the AI (which is what this story is about) doesn’t start until they meet, and prior to that I only need to introduce the essence of the milieu, the rest will unfold and be shown to the reader as they read instead of me telling them about it through exposition or, worst of all, flashbacks. That’s if I can do it right.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at Star Wars again. We have the opening sequence where we meet Princess Leia and Darth Vader for the first time. In this snapshot we get a sense of both personalities. Ignoring the robots, the next character we meet is Luke Skywalker doing—what? Going about his normal business is what. Luke Skywalker is in his natural environment where the status quo prevails. This is disturbed by the antics of R2D2 trying to get to Obi-wan Kenobi—another supporting character is introduced. Luke is pressed to join Obi-wan but refuses. When he returns home he is confronted with the death of his aunt and uncle—the inciting incident that sets him on his way. Now, a novice writer may think that this is where the beginning ends—and they’d be wrong. We still need to introduce Han Solo, Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon (yes, it is a character, sort of) and the Death Star. It is the moment the Death Star’s tractor beam locks onto the Millennium Falcon that marks the end of the beginning and the transition into the middle part of the story.
Without a well thought out and considered beginning your story will be like an edifice built on shaky foundations. And, while a story does not happen in isolation, does not spring from nothingness, you the writer must decide just exactly where your story about your characters will actually start. You must pick the point where the drama begins, not the life of the character; otherwise all stories would start with, “Jack was born on July twenty-five . . .” which is patently ridiculous. The beginning of a story has to introduce all of the elements of the story that will be in conflict throughout the middle of the story because, to suddenly add new characters or situations into the middle of your story will break the natural rise in the action and cause the reader to pause, wondering where, and why, these particular new elements have been introduced.
Remember, as you consider where and how to begin your story that a good beginning must not follow on from any other cause and must introduce the time, place and major characters as well as the ‘tone’ of the work.