It’s relatively easy to start a story. More challenging than the beginning are the middle and the end. As we mentioned in previous posts, a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy).
In this post, we’re reviewing the beginnings of stories to provide an opportunity for aspiring writers to map out possible middles and endings for them.
Let’s start with a classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho:
Marion Crane has a problem. She wants to marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but, in the wake of a divorce, he’s having financial problems. He’s paying alimony to his ex-wife while he pays his late father’s outstanding debts. Her employer, Mr. Lowery, a real estate agent, receives a cash payment from a wealthy client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s buying a house for his daughter’s wedding present. When Mr. Lowery asks her to deposit the money, she absconds with it instead, driving until she becomes exhausted. After a highway patrolman stops to check on her as she sleeps in her car, parked alongside the highway, taking note of her license plate, she trades in her car for another model. However, the patrolman witnesses the sale. Afraid that the patrolman will remember her once the theft is reported, Marion drives from Arizona into California, where Sam lives. However, as night deepens, a downpour occurs, and she is forced to rent a room in an out-of-the-way auto court, Bates Motel. Norman Bates, a shy, nervous young man, rents her a room. He offers to cook her a meal, but when he returns to the Victorian house on a hill overlooking the motel, Marion hears him argue with his mother, who forbids him to bring her into the house. He takes her a tray of food, which they share. She learns that his hobby is taxidermy; he enjoys stuffing dead animals, especially birds. Thereafter, Marion, who divulges her real name, goes to her room and hides the stolen money. She plans to return to Arizona the next day and make things right, if she can. After she leaves, Norman checks the motel register and sees that she has signed in under an assumed name. Ogling her through a peephole in his office, Norman watches Marion undress in her bathroom. The sight of her angers him, and he returns to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen. As Marion showers, a woman, armed with a butcher’s knife, enters the motel room bathroom, and stabs her to death.
Let’s try another:
A new shop opens in Castle Rock, Maine, attracting local residents who seek “needful things”--merchandise that they want worse than anything else, merchandise for which they are willing to do anything.
Does this opening seem to slight for a full-fledged novel or motion picture? The novel is a whopping 792 pages, and the film runs 120 minutes!
Scientists at an arctic research outpost discover an extraterrestrial pilot frozen in a block of ice. Taking “The Thing From Another World” back to their laboratory, the alien is thawed out; wackiness ensues.How do the writers of these stories flesh them out? In other words, how do they get from their beginnings to their middles and from their middles to their ends? To find out, simply read a good summary of each of them on a reliable Internet site: Psycho, Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World.
The ways in which these beginnings were developed are not the only ways they could have been developed. However, they do show the ways that several professional writers chose to develop them. If you took this exercise seriously, you should have created an alternate middle and end for each of these beginnings. Sometimes, movies are packaged with alternate endings so viewers who don’t like the “official” ending are free to select a different one.
Regardless of how a beginning is developed, one should be careful to ensure that there is a cause-and-effect relationship among the incidents of the plot so that everything that happens does so for a reason. To ensure such causal relationships, you might actually use such transitions in your summary of the plot as because, since, therefore, as a result, due to, and so forth.
One further warning: surprise your reader. Make sure your plot has lots of unexpected twists and turns. A plot can (and should be) both logical and unpredictable.