Scott Bailey asked on his blog today, "What is a story?"
Why do stories have a beginning, middle and end? Obviously, they start somewhere and end somewhere physically, textually or orally, but is that alone what gives us the urge to give a story form?
I have a talkative relative (let's call her a great aunt, like my MC's Great Aunt Sullana) who is always telling me about incidents, people, and events in her life. Never, however, does she arrange these into stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Instead, her chatter strings along a seemingly random assortment of sentences about a friend's gall bladder operation, a sock she lost, what she's reading, the weather on her drive to my house and instructions to her dog. You will wait in vain to hear about whether the operation went smoothly or where the sock was found or how any of these things relate to one another.
On the other hand, I knew a fisherman who, under the guise of chit-chat, would tell the most hilarious and fantastic stories, with a complete cast of characters, plot tension and twist ending. Though he never announced, "I'm going to tell a story," his stories had a clear beginning, "So this one time...", problem, bigger problem, even bigger problem, climax and conclusion. "...and I swore I'd never go fishing with him again. Nah, I did, but can you believe his balls?" Sometimes even a moral: "Man, if you're that drunk, vomit before you try to talk to the Coast Guard."
The structure of a story can be boiled down, like a fairy-tail, a joke or an SAT essay, to five paragraphs.
1. Once Upon a Time (Introduces Main Character and Setting)
2. The Problem (First Time is Coincidence)
3. The Bigger Problem (The Second Time is a Pattern)
4. The Biggest Problem (The Third Time's the Charm Which Breaks the Pattern)
5. Happily Ever After (Reward for the Good Character Or Moral Explaining Failure of the Wicked Character)
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This is simple; I'm sure you've all seen something like this before. Why, however, do we crave fisherman stories with this explicit structure, above and beyond random great aunt tongue-wagging? In a sense, great aunt stories better reflect real life. Her words are verbalized stream of consciousness.
Indeed, one of the experiments of modern fiction (and I don't use Modern as a technical term, though I'm sure there is one; forgive my ignorance of lit crit) is to create fiction disguised as stream of consciousness. Fairy-tales make no bones about where they start, "Once upon a time..." Nineteenth Century novelists often felt obligated to start with plenty of backstory, "I was born..." or sometimes even, "My grandfather was born..." but this is frowned upon now. Contemporary novelists can't get away with three chapters of backstory.
Modern novelists like to pretend our stories start in the middle of things and end in the middle of things, as if we simply happened along somewhere, witnessed some random transactions, and then departed. In some genres, this impulse is stronger than others. Scott mentions he prefers "indeterminate endings." Literary fiction, which is most concerned, I believe, with mirroring "real life", is also most likely to disguise beginnings and endings as "unprivileged" moments in a long series of moments. A literary telling of St. George besting the dragon would not necessarily begin with George seeking out the dragon, or end with the dragon being slain. It might instead, start with a middle aged George drinking at the tavern with his buddies, talking about his exploit, trying to decide if he will go back home to his dingy hovel, wife and seven kids, or take off down the road to look for more dragons.
Of course, this is just frosted glass over the naked fairy tale, shattered as soon a you have to tell an agent, editor or consumer in a pitch why does this story matter? In my example, the point of the ending is George's uncertainty, the moral is about how aging action heroes may find nostalgia for action a constant strain on settling for a "normal" life. There is still a story, still a beginning, middle and end. So it is not really that ending is undetermined, but that indeterminacy is the ending. The moral at the end is that things never end easily wrapped up in bows.
A modern story may introduce a character already beset by problem, and show the world through the eyes of the character, but like a fairy-tale, must still introduce character and setting. The story may meander through the middle, but must, like a fairy-tale, still have conflict. The elements it introduces must not be lost socks. They must have a purpose.
In an earlier post, I looked at bad endings. LIsted #3 was "no actual resolution." A well-crafted story must resolve the questions raised in a plot, but it doesn't have to answeranswer them.
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Here's a fun thing to try.
Suppose you were to re-write your story as a fairy-tale. What would it be? Who are the crucial characters, what are the crucial conflicts? Could you boil it down to five paragraphs? At least under two pages? It's kind of like trying to write a synopsis, except fun. I dare say, it's the more fun the further removed from being fairy-tail like your story is. My novel is based on a fairy-tail, so distilling it back to that form is interesting (I can see what I've changed more clearly) but probably not as amusing as if I tried to tell Gone With the Wind beginning, "Once upon a time..."