Remember when you were a kid in school learning the fundamentals of creative writing and you were told that every story must contain a beginning, middle and end? Your teacher stood before the classroom and explained that a successful story must comprise of these three components in order to be coherent and complete, and you blindly accepted his rule as fact. Why wouldn’t you? It’s not exactly a ground breaking concept. A story must begin and end somewhere, and within those two points a middle can be found. Well, believe it or not, in that moment you were being exposed to the teachings of the infamous Greek philosopher Aristotle for the first time. Aristotle was responsible for the idea that a whole is what has a beginning and middle and end (technically the protasis, epitasis and catastrophe).
It’s sound advice. And one of the few rules in writing that you can probably still remember from your early years. But rules are made to be broken….
…Or in this case, redefined. If we are going to get technical, the Roman drama critic Horace already fucked up the philosopher’s rule of thumb when he started advocating a limit of five acts centuries ago. But for the purpose of this post we are going to disregard all who oppose the three part dramatic structure and focus instead on pushing the creative ruling of a genius beyond its limits. Beginning, middle and end is a start. But in today’s world it just doesn’t feel adequate. Instead, I have taken it upon myself to rename them as the calm, the storm, and the flood.
Beginning. Middle. End.
The calm. The storm. The flood.
Do you follow so far? Good. Then let’s begin with the calm:
The concepts are so similar; yet so strikingly different. When someone talks of a beginning we think of happiness, of a fresh start, of possibilities. We think of a point marked in time and/or space at which something begins. There’s a great sense of optimism instilled within the phrase. A beginning is more often than not something to be celebrated; and we as readers/watchers/listeners often approach a new work with a sense of excitement and wonder. Yet when we substitute the word beginning with the calm we feel a sense of foreboding creep into our mind.
That feeling of excitement at the new and unknown becomes tainted. The calm is instantly recognised as a moment of reprieve or unnerving tranquillity that seems doomed to falter when difficult times arise. Those same possibilities provided through the beginning are still present; we can still have fresh starts and happiness, their existence is now just magnified by that sense of unease settling over everything like a fine mist.
You can see where I’m going with this can’t you? Something as simple as the phrase we choose to bestow up the opening chapters of our stories, or artworks, or our lives, can shift our perspectives and allow us to create wondrous tales of optimism or crippling tales of woe. Some people would surmise that what I am talking about is to do with mindsets and their influence on the human condition. And in some respects they would be right. Mind over matter, or positive thinking is fantastic. But we as writers and artists also owe it to ourselves to take the road less travelled and indulge our darker impulses in order to produce the excellence we often demand of ourselves.
Let’s use an example that’s all too familiar to the readers of this site. Let’s use myself… I like to break myself apart on a regular basis, so why not do it again here? Let’s view my life right now as the beginning and break down our premise line for a story:
Chris is a twenty six year old aspiring author who dreams of crafting a living through producing excellent novels. He’s single, but in love with a girl that he just can’t have. He is working in an industry that he will never fully commit to, because deep down his heart belongs in a world of fiction. He has family and friends that he loves more than anything else in the world. And while he’s unsure about what the future has in store, Chris knows that if he keeps striving towards his goals he will one day see his name on the hardcover of a novel…
Don’t get me wrong. There is a story in there, it’s just ambiguous, uninteresting and probably not likely to grab the attention of anyone accustomed to fantastic literature. The beginning in this instance is vague and pretty fucking boring. No one wants to read about this version of me. No one wants to discover his middle. But if we were to shift our perception of my life and view it as the calm, it would look more like this:
Chris is a twenty six year old aspiring author who dreams of crafting a living as a novelist. Frustrated by his inability to break into the industry, he finds himself punching in and out of a day job that fails to quench his thirst for success. He’s alone; his heart belongs to a girl that he just can’t have. She’s too beautiful, too precious. He knows that no matter how badly he wants her, he would be her fall from grace if she were to ever love him. He has friends he would protect with bloody hands, and a family he would sacrifice everything for. The future scares him. He wants success so badly that he is prepared to destroy anyone who stands in his path. His mind is coiled tight like a spring twisted beyond its range. There is a storm brewing in his mind, and he’s too weak to weather it…
…The calm suggests that this state is not sustainable. Our subject is coiled, on edge, and in love with a future and a girl who continue to elude him. He’s unstable and frustrated. But most of all he’s interesting to us. The calm cannot last. We know this, a storm is coming and our subject is going to have to weather the bitter lashings of wind and rain. He’ll be soaked to the bone and forced to pit himself against forces greater than himself. And we want to witness it. We want to see him pushed and broken.
There is a storm coming. It will take what we know to be true about the middle and redefine it. Just as Horace debunked Aristotle’s theory of dramatic structure, so too will the storm warp the epitasis, or middle, we often know to be true. The calm is passing and the storm is almost at hand.