his plot element is a structural point - and I know as soon as some of you read that you'll groan.
Can you see what he’s saying?
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?