Most novels you read will have three parts: the beginning, middle, and end. Shorter stories have this too, but of course they are much shorter (no kidding). Each part of the story has a specific job and the level of action and tension is different in each part. This change in level is what we mean by an arc.
Here is a diagram that I got from Susan Leigh Noble’s site Into Another World, which has some great posts on novel writing. This is for a novel but it would be similar for shorter fiction as well.
The Basic Story Arc
Every story is different, but most stories will follow a similar pattern: at the beginning we meet the characters, or at least the main one(s). Then something happens and the main conflict in the story begins. This could be any type of conflict, like a murder, a character getting sick, leaving on a trip, etc. (see my post on Conflict for more examples).
During the middle of the story, the characters deal with that conflict and probably find new ones. Things get more serious and the tension of the story increases until a climax whenever the conflict is resolved. After that, things get wrapped up and (maybe) the characters live happily ever after. Think of some stories you know and see if they follow this pattern. In my post on Beginnings, I talked about the opening lines or scenes of a story. This post is about the first part of a story, approximately the first third. We’ll start with novels since the structure of those is often clearer.
Read this story beginning and see what you think:
Trevor opened the door and froze. The hallway was crowded with zazz-bots. No, not the zazz-bots! Anything would be better than them. And if they were there, it must mean his brother Herman downstairs was dead. Trevor slammed the door, choking back a sob.
This is a high tension, emotional scene but I’m guessing you don’t care. The reason is because we don’t know Trevor or his brother Herman. They’re just names to us so why would we feel bad that Herman might be dead? We don’t know what a zazz-bot is, so of course we don’t share Trevor’s fear of seeing them in the hallway.
This is what the beginning of a story is for: to let us know who the characters are, and why we should care about them. Of course, we will get to know the characters over the story, but we are introduced to the main ones at the beginning.
The beginning is also a good time to set up for your world if you are writing a fantasy or science fiction story. Check out my post on Setting for more about that.
There are a lot of ways to start a novel but I’m going to talk about two big ones. One I call Daily Life and the other is Thrown in.
1. Daily Life
This is where you show what the characters life is like before the main conflict of the story starts. We get to see their normal life and learn about them before things go wrong. That is the beginning used by most novels. In this beginning, the tension is low since the main conflict of the story has not started yet.
NOTE: This does NOT mean you should write about routine things, like getting up and eating breakfast. Only show what the reader needs to know to understand the story, and put in hints of the conflict to come. After all, your goal is to get the reader to finish the story.
This type of beginning ends when the main story conflict starts, also called the Inciting Incident. For instance, the war starts, or the boyfriend gets sick, or the main character gets lost.
The Matrix (movie)
We see Neo, the main character, working at a boring office job (however we also see Trinity escape the police with some awesome Matrix-style moves, showing what is coming). This beginning ends when Neo learns that he is living in a computer simulation called the Matrix and finally leaves it.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Meg comes home from school and we learn about her family, that her mother is a scientist and her father disappeared mysteriously. This beginning ends when Meg and her brother learn that their father is a prisoner on an evil planet and leave Earth to go find him.
2. Thrown In
In this type of story, the main conflict of the story starts right away. However, what is important is that the characters have been thrown into the situation along with us. They are confused and scared and so we learn along with them. This is important because if the characters know what is happening and we don’t, then you have a situation like the zazz-bots in the hallway from before. We learn about the characters by how they react to the situation.
Because this type of story has the main conflict start right at the beginning, it is a bit fuzzy where the beginning ends and the middle starts. But that’s okay.
Lord of the Flies, by William golding
The story starts with the boys finding themselves on the desert island and having to survive.
The Maze-Runner , by james dashner
This starts with Thomas in the elevator, being sent to the Glade. We learn about the Maze along with him.
As a story gets shorter, the arc of the story is not as smooth just because there is not as much space. Since something has to be cut, it is usually the beginning and end that are shortened or taken out almost completely to leave more time for the main story.
What this means is that it is good to introduce the conflict right away in a short story along with the character description. This is not the same as Thrown In with a novel since here in a short story it is okay to just tell the conflict to the reader. For example:
The corn was twice as tall as Henry the night that his father died.
This one sentence does a few things:
- It introduces Henry, who is (we assume) the main character
- We can guess his family are farmers and that Henry is a boy
- We get the conflict, that his father is dead.
- We can get a glimpse of the upcoming story, that the corn is ready to be harvested and by emphasizing how much taller it is than Henry, that it is way too big a job for him.
This just illustrates that short stories have to be more efficient since they have fewer words to work with. Here are some examples of the first parts of famous short stories:
The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
This story is a little less than 2000 words long and the first part is about 400 words (20% of the story). It explains that the young couple are poor and the wife has very little money to buy a present for her husband. This does not have an inciting incident since the conflict is explained in the first paragraph (she has no money to buy him a present and tomorrow is Christmas). The first part ends when she starts to plan how she will get the money.
The Tell-tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe
This story is a bit over 2000 words and beginning part is about 200 words (10% of the story). The narrator tells us that he is living with an old man and that he decides to kill him. The first part ends after this once he tells how he went about killing him.
Tips When Writing the Beginning
1. Give the reader only what they need
This is a good principle for writing anyway, but especially at the beginning. Your goal as the writer is to tell an interesting story and keep the reader reading until the end. You know the story and they don’t, so what does the reader need to know to understand the story? For example:
- Character: Anything about the character that is important for understanding the story (example: we see in the first few pages that Meg in A Wrinkle of Time stubborn and rebellious. This is important later in the story)
- Setting: anything unique about the setting (example: The Maze Runner has a very unique setting, so the writer explains that a lot at the beginning)
2. Plant a hook
This is where you give the reader something very interesting or engaging at the beginning to pull them in. This could be a scene or a character or an idea. One of the best hook scenes I’ve seen in a movie is in The Matrix, where Trinity slow-motion beats up the police following her. After that, you want to keep watching just to know how she could do that.
3. Set the tone
I talked about Tone before, but it’s basically the feeling of the story. If it’s supposed to be a funny story, you don’t want to start out serious, for example. Changing tone in the middle of a story can be confusing for a reader. Of course, there might be funny or serious scenes but the beginning should show the reader what kind of story it will be.
Now it’s your turn
- Think of a story you know well and think about what kind of beginning it has.
- Look at the beginning of story you have written. Does it do a good job of giving the reader what they will need to understand the story and setting the right tone?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.