You may be familiar with the good old sandwich analogy. Take two pieces of bread—the beginning of the story and the ending—and layer the rest of the ingredients in between. This is the basic three act structure that fits almost every kind of fiction, no matter if it’s a play, a short story, or even a full length novel. Put simply, every story must have three basic parts: the problem; the problem gets worse; the problem gets solved. While the middle usually makes up the bulk of the “sandwich,” the “meat” if you will, the choice of bread on either side can make or break the story. A weak beginning and readers may not continue reading. A weak ending and they will be left feeling unsatisfied and probably won’t be back for more.
Beginnings need to do three things. (There’s that rule of threes again.) First, they must provide readers with a compelling main character. When I say compelling, I mean that simply introducing the protagonist is not enough. A connection needs to be made between the protagonist and the reader. In other words, you need to make your readers care about your lead.
Next, the basic setting and tone should also be established. Be careful not to make the opening scenes drag with too much description however. Modern fiction usually starts with some kind of action rather than a long descriptive passage. While we want the reader to be able to picture the setting, we don’t want it to become the focal point of Act One. This brings me to the third important point that must be included in any successful beginning: the problem.
Conflict is what drives any story. Without it there really isn’t a story at all. If you want readers to keep on reading, you must introduce the main opposition early on. Problems come in all shapes and sizes of course. Some are internal; some are external. Some come in the form of another human being while sometimes the lead character is asked to face some kind of physical trial. No matter the conflict, something must happen that forces the main character to make a choice, a choice from which there is no return. Some scholars call it “the inciting force.” James Scott Bell calls it “the first doorway.” Whatever the terminology, something needs to happen to your main character early on that drives the entire story.
Here is more of what Bell has to say from his book Plot and Structure.
“Lead’s normal world, a place of safety and rest, is on the one side of the doorway. Problems may happen here, but they don’t threaten change. Lead is content to stay here. Something has to happen to push him through the door . . . On the other side of the door is the outside world, the great unknown, the dark forest . . . a place where the Lead is going to have to dig deep inside and show courage, learn new things, make new allies, etc.”
One mistake when setting up the initial conflict is including too much backstory. Keep this to a minimum in the beginning. Just like too much description, too much backstory can drag the story down. Wait to include important bits of information later on in the middle, and even then, in small increments that fit seamlessly into the dialogue, action, or internal thought processes. Writing a middle that keeps the story moving forward is another entire discussion, so I will move on to the all-important ending.
Like beginnings, endings are typically short. Modern readers don’t like long resolutions after the climax. However, ending too abruptly can leave them feeling unsatisfied. Don’t rush the ending just to get it over with. Endings need to tie up loose ends, but even more importantly, they should leave the reader with a feeling of resonance. In other words, readers should care long after the book is over.
Mickey Spillane is quoted as saying, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”
While beginnings and endings are relatively short in terms of the entire story, they must be crafted with care. All the filling in the world doesn’t make a great sandwich without fresh, delicious bread on either side.
Tracy Krauss is a multi-published author and playwright with several best selling and award winning books and plays in print. She writes from her home in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Visit her website for more: http://tracykrauss.com