I know that some storytelling teachers have found the ideas of “beginning,” “middle” and “end” helpful with a) shaping their own stories and b) helping their students shape stories. If you’re one of them, what I say in this article will likely make little sense to you.
But for everyone else, let me get this off my chest: I have never understood the common dictum to make sure your story has a “Beginning, Middle, and End.” For me, those terms are first, confusing, and second, miss the point.
What do these words mean?
I have heard respected storytellers say, “Aristotle defined a story to be something with a beginning, middle and end.” But my reading of Aristotle doesn’t agree. In fact, Aristotle’s mention of those three words only applied to one type of story, the tragic play.
For Aristotle, the “beginning” refers to the first action in the tragedy’s causal sequence. He believed that all the actions in a tragedy should be part of a strict chain of causation: Action A caused Action B, which caused Action C—all the way to the “end” of the chain of causation, the final action. (See the excerpt at the end of this essay, which includes Aristotle’s key passage about these three words.)
That’s a fine principle for creating a particular type of story, but does it make sense to apply it to all tragic stories? Even if someone advocates this strict causal chain for tragedies, does it make sense to extend it to all kinds of stories? If we do, many great novels, films, and plays fail this test.
The “Less Strict” Option?
It’s possible to object, “Well, we don’t mean to be as strict about the causal chain as Aristotle. Just be aware of where your story starts, where it ends, and what’s in the middle.”
But without further clarification, what good does that do you? How are beginnings supposed to be different from endings? Alternatively, does it imply that all stories must be told in chronological order? (If so, every murder mystery breaks this rule!) Further, if it doesn’t imply chronological order, what does it mean?
And what doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end? One wag said that all kinds of things have beginnings, middles, and ends—including eating a peanut butter sandwich. (I would add doctor’s appointments and a good night’s sleep.)
On top of all that, doesn’t every story begin with something? And end with something? And have stuff in the middle? Some people interpret Aristotle’s comments to imply a “three-act structure,” but Aristotle never said that. (See the section in the Poetics, below, where Aristotle speaks of the parts of a tragedy.)
What Functions Does a Story’s Plot Need to Fulfill?
Instead of relying on the words “beginning,” “middle” and “end,” which don’t imply much about what they each consist of, I suggest looking at what stories must do – not what parts they must have.
I propose three “non-negotiable functions of plot.” Every story needs to:
a. Gain the listener’s (or the reader’s) attention;
b. Retain that attention for the full length of the story; and
c. Repay that attention. That is, make listeners/readers feel pleased that they heard the whole story. At the end, we want them to feel that the story was worth the trip.
These three functions are required of every story, of every genre and every length. And they are clearly necessary.
Fortunately, we can see these functions as three questions that the story creator and story teller must “answer” in every story: “How will this story gain the listener’s attention? How will it retain that attention until the end? How will this story repay that attention?”
Not What, But How?
Once we have asked the three questions, then the storyteller/story-creator can find her own answers.
To fulfill all three functions, by the way, a story need not be told in chronological order. (Whew! Mysteries are okay, after all.) Note, too, that such a story need not necessarily follow Freytag’s pyramid, the Hero’s Journey, or any other abstract plot pattern (as helpful as they can sometimes be). In fact, if a story follows one of those patterns but doesn’t gain, retain, and repay listener attention, it still fails as a story.
Finally, note that these three functions specify what you need to accomplish, but not how.
I find this liberating. As long as your story succeeds in all three non-negotiable functions, you are free to shape it any way you can figure out. In short, you have three clear goals—and you can freely apply your individual sensitivity, creativity, and skill to achieving them.
What About You?
Where do you find yourself with regard to the terms “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.” Have you used them successfully? Or have they befuddled you, as they have me? I look forward to your comments, below.
 Here is a classic translation of what Aristotle said about Beginning, Middle, End:
“These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy. Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.”
—The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S. H. Butcher. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm Section VII. (Accessed 2019-02-10)
 Aristotle seems to specify that tragic plays be chronologically divided into four separate parts (seven parts counting the two necessary and two optional sub-parts of the choral portion). I have added the numbers in parentheses:
“The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been already mentioned. We now come to the quantitative parts, and the separate parts into which Tragedy is divided, namely, (1) Prologue, (2) Episode, (3) Exode, (4) Choric song; this last being divided into (4a) Parode and (4b) Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some are (4c) the songs of actors from the stage and (4d) the Commoi.
“The Prologue is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the Parode of the Chorus. The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy which is between complete choric songs. The Exode is that entire part of a tragedy which has no choric song after it. Of the Choric part the Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus: the Stasimon is a Choric ode without anapaests or trochaic tetrameters: the Commos is a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors. The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been already mentioned. The quantitative parts—the separate parts into which it is divided—are here enumerated.”
—Ibid., Section XII.