Monday, February 17, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - BEGINNINGS #4 - The End of the Beginning

This plot element is a structural point - and I know as soon as some of you read that you'll groan.

I’m often surprised by how many writers bemoan structure and "rules". The general consensus among the disaffected seems to be that structure stifles creativity. But to me, that attitude signals a misconception about what structure really means.

Structure (I believe) doesn’t mean “Your book MUST have someone’s life at threat, a humorous side-kick and a cackling villain – now go!”

Structure (in my opinion) does mean identifying the core framework necessary to build a solid story. It’s like architecture – you can make just about anything you want, in whatever weird and wonderful shapes that please you. But underneath all that unique beauty you’ve got to have a solid foundation, load-bearing walls, and doors that won’t stick. Because who’s going to enjoy a house they can’t get into, or one they’re afraid will fall on their head?


Today I’m talking about how to signal the end of your beginning. And I don’t mean “beginning” in the sense of “Once Upon A Time”. I mean beginning as in the first of three acts: Beginning, Middle, and End.

Why It’s Important to Know When Your Beginning Ends

At a big picture level the transition from Beginning to Middle does two things: Consciously or otherwise, it tells the reader that your world-building and set-up have to be complete, and it (subconsciously) tells the reader to strap in.

At a detail level, it gives you a finish line for all the critical plot elements we’ve discussed prior to this point. All of them, without fail, should be complete before the end of your beginning. The parameters for your story should be in place. When this first curtain closes, the reader should be able to describe exactly what kind of story we’re in.

Now, chances are, even without realizing it you’ve probably already got the primary signal of the end of your Beginning in place. Because it’s this:

It’s the moment when your protagonist becomes aware of what’s truly at stake and decides to fight. (Depending on your genre, we’ll define ‘fight’ as anything from ‘strive for love’ to ‘kill the villain’). This is the point when the story goal is set.

In his book Techniques of the Selling Writer, my super-swami Dwight V. Swain says it like this:

“…Curiosity is the element, on page one, that makes your reader wonder: What’s this leading up to?

So, what is this leading up to?

The fact that there’s going to be a fight.

What’s the fight about?

It concerns your character’s efforts to achieve a goal – to attain or retain something in the face of danger.

Enter the story question: Will your focal character win, or won’t they?”

Can you see what he’s saying?

You have to set the greater events of your book into action. Your protagonist can no longer be fleeing, ignoring, ignorant, undecided, etc, etc, etc. This is the point where they look at what’s happening and choose an end-game.

If you can’t identify a point at which your character chooses to fight, then create one. Make them active. Turn them into a purveyor of their own fate - even if that fate will be forced to change before we're done.

If you can’t figure out what the end game is, then get working. Without a goal the character is simply a plastic-bag riding the wind. You’ll get feedback notes from agents like ‘passive’, ‘can’t identify what’s at stake’, ‘just didn’t care about what happened’ (trust me, I’m quoting).

In other words, the first act begins when we meet the protagonist and their life changes. It ends when the protagonist (who may well appear besmudged and rising from the ashes of ruin) clenches their fist and says “Not on my watch!”

So, take a good, hard look at your plot arch. Take a good hard look at your protagonist. Then make sure the two converge at this point in the moment your reader would identify as the “launch pad”.

Your Turn: Can you identify the end of the beginning in some of your favorite books?


  1. Aimee, your blog is an absolute must-visit destination.

    There are so many misconceptions about structure and formula/format. Structure helps me be even more creative.

    It helps me stop the whole story from falling over. It is just like a building. Look at how many different types of buildings we have all over the world - but the reason they work and stay up is the structure we don't even see.

    That's the clue - the writer needs structure, and then we disguise it so the reader doesn't even notice it's there.

  2. Had to double-check my scene outline to make sure I have this critical point in my wip. I do, thank goodness!

    Thanks for the insightful post!

  3. Thanks, Ebony! That's really high praise.

    Tamara - good luck with the writing!

  4. Thanks, Aimee. Am in revisions on my novel and thus is great advice!

  5. Oh, this is so true, and you are SO right about structure. That's what led me to go from being a pants-er to being an outliner. It was so that I knew, clearly, what was at stake for the character and what the end game was, which helped me be able to write the thing from start to finish! Also? I think every new writer needs to read the part about structure.

  6. Thanks for a very useful post! I'm in revisions now, so anything that reminds me or prompts me on what to look for is valuable.

    Fellow UF Campaigner.

  7. Fellow Campaigner here just dropping in to say hello.

    Also, fantastic post. Now I need to revisit my first few chapters to make sure everything is in order.