I heard this brilliant advice yesterday, I tried it, and my mind is blown by how much I was able to learn and figure out from this one exercise.
If someone read only the beginning and the ending of your story, would they be able to guess the middle or would they be confused?
To execute the exercise, write 2-3 short and simple sentences for the beginning and for the end. And then either literally ask someone to guess the middle from them or you can just try to imagine what conclusions someone unfamiliar with your story would draw.
Once you have that, ask yourself, are you happy with that conclusion?
The goal isn’t to guess the middle correctly but rather to be able to draw a line between the beginning and the ending.
I guess another version of this exercise is to write your beginning and ending and pinpoint what changed. And that answer is what your story is about.
I know we’re all protective of our spoilers so you don’t have to spell it out here unless you want us to do the guessing game, but I highly encourage you to try it on your own at least.
If you’re going to post it here, only give us the beginning and ending and we’ll try to guess the middle.
A word of advice, keep it simple. People get discouraged from large blocks of text.
This exercise secretly forces you to define what your story is about, what questions it answers.
That question is sometimes difficult to define (depends on the story type) so this might point it out to you.
For me, it helped me see two things:
1: Where book 1 should end and book 2 should begin. I wasn’t sure about that. I’m super clear now.
2: That book 2 will be better if I switch the order of events.
To start it up, I’m going to post book 3 planned beginning and ending. Let’s play.
MC and LI travel far away to find LI’s family.
In the process, they unexpectedly find MC’s father whom he didn’t know was even alive.
They move in with their respective parents, who are different from each other like night and day (literally, one lives in the sky, while the other lives on the ground).
To win MC back, LI has to tell his parents about their secret relationship.
Families accept each other and approve the relationship and everyone lives happily ever after.
Families feud; MC tells LI they have to confess their love and hope families will end feud. MC tells parents, but LI loses courage and fails to confess. MC gets punished by parents for loving LI; is forbidden to see LI ever again. Sees LI on the sly, telling LI it’s all over unless LI confesses to parents…?
Quick question: Does it work on stories that have been completed?
Because I am in the planning/plotting stages of this novel. I have a general idea of the ending, but it is still just planning/plotting.
I think you could use it on a work in progress but it might not be as useful.
At least in my case, no matter how much I plan, I don’t ultimately know what story I’m going to tell until I tell it in full. I somehow always end with a different story than the one I thought I was writing.
But you could still do it if you have an idea how you’re going to end the story.
I was responding to your previous post where you described the beginning and ending of your book, then asked if anyone could guess the middle. I was guessing the middle of your book. I take it my guess is way off base…? (♯^.^ღ)
Well, no. It’s not a feud but rather LI’s mom is very judgemental about MC and his father so LI chickens out, doesn’t tell anyone that MC is his boyfriend. When MC finds out he’s LI’s dirty secret, he’s upset.
But you know what, it’s not bad. At least you could make some theory.
Interesting theory, though I’ll admit that I’m a bit skeptical about it. If readers are easily able to deduce the middle of the story from just the beginning and ending, wouldn’t that mean that your story is built on common narrative tropes rather than something more unexpected, though maybe I’m misinterpreting the exercise?
Still’s it’s an intriguing idea and exercise, so here’s my beginning and ending if someone wants to give guessing the middle a shot.
MC is struggling with anxiety about the future, specifically with regards to college applications, but refuses to open up since he’s not emotionally honest. He’s also slowly drifting apart from his only friend, and when his rebellious older sister returns early from college, the family infighting begins. However, when an asteroid knocks the Moon closer to the Earth, his life drastically changes as tidal tsunamis pummel the shores of his coastal city, causing a catastrophic disaster.
MC’s parents figure out that he has been smuggling food to his best friend, and when MC secretly meets up with him, he discovers that his best friend’s family is moving to the South immediately. On his best friend’s last day, they complete their last summer bucket list items and journey through the history of their friendship. At the end of the day, they both tell each other that they love each other, and the volcanic ash storms return as his friend leaves.
Being unexpected has nothing to do with beginning and ending.
And I’d never put down tropes. Tropes are awesome because they’re a tool to help you say more with less.
Let’s take this example:
Time traveler accidentally gets stuck in the past.
Now, take this ending:
Time traveler plays with the band on his parents’ high school prom.
Is it surprising? Yes, I bet you wouldn’t have guessed that from the beginning, but does it make sense? No. Because it has nothing to do with the beginning. If the beginning was about him wanting to meet his parents, then it would make sense, but that’s not what it is, is it?
What is the actual ending?
Time traveler fixes the past he accidentally changed and goes back to his time.
From that, you can guess that in the middle he did something to change the past and also that he found a way to get back home. (And you can also guess what movie it is )
The purpose of the exercise is to test if you’re telling one story. You can tell other stories within that story (subplots), but one story should be more important than the others. This exercise can help pinpoint it to you.
I do understand this point about telling one story, which brings this sense of how the set-up in the beginning of the story ultimately directly leads to the ending of the story (as seen in your example), but to play devil’s advocate, how would this exercise apply to, say, stories that don’t have a particularly linear framework? By linear framework, I mean the idea that every step that a protagonist takes would take them closer to achieving the “goal” established near the beginning, even if there are set backs, at the very end.
I suppose one example would be The Walking Dead’s First Season (Blurred out spoilers if you haven’t seen it)
Inciting Incident: Rick Grimes wakes up in a hospital to discover the world has been overrun by the undead and desperately wants to find his wife and kid.
Climax / Ending: Rick Grimes, united with his wife and kid along with a group of survivors, escape the CDC just before it explodes.
Going by the standard established in the examples, this ending / climax doesn’t particularly make much sense because it doesn’t particularly connect to the beginning at all. If anything, it could be argued that the climax should’ve happened a couple episodes back when they got reunited, and yet, this ending does feel fitting because of a mid-narrative addition of a new motivation, the desire to find a cure, that wasn’t present in the beginning.
The idea that I’m trying to convey is that I was wondering if we’re thinking about a story from this perspective, then how do we account for mid-narrative switch-ups that occur that ultimately lead to a climax that would appear to come out of nowhere despite making sense when accounting for narrative progression?
Yeah, it’s a bit messy, so I’ll put it here in a more condensed form:
Inciting Incident: An asteroid crashes into the Moon, which pushes it closer to the Earth, causing catastrophic damage to the world.
Climax: MC, after being exposed for smuggling food to his best friend, is forced to say goodbye to him as his best friend’s family leaves town.
I’m sorry in advance, this got lengthy but I’m really glad we’re having this conversation.
It actually does make sense. I didn’t watch TWD but from the beginning and ending you gave here, I can easily make assumptions about the middle. He must have found his family, and in the process found out that CDC was responsible for the zombies? Or maybe zombies were hiding there and he tried to get rid of them in bulk?
The point of the exercise isn’t to correctly guess the middle but to see if a line can be drawn from point A to point B.
You make a good point about nonlinear storytelling. I would have to look at some examples to see how that would work.
You’re onto something important here and I’m glad you pointed it out.
You see, a story isn’t just a plot. It’s a description of a change.
The switch up you’re describing could still work.
In the case when the story’s message goes beyond a plot, I think the beginning and ending you would describe should encapsulate the change. And when doing this exercise, you could skip the plot parts and focus on the theme.
Okay so a story that comes to mind immediately is my new favorite: Call me by your name (it’s a book and a movie). I watched the movie. I haven’t finished the book yet but from what I’ve read so far, I have a good idea of how it’s told - and it’s nonlinear too (the movie is linear).
Vague spoilers ahead.
On the surface, it’s a love story, a tragic one. Boy falls in love and has his heart broken.
Literal beginning: stranger enters his life.
Literal ending: he learns that there’s no hope that they’ll ever get back together.
I guess you could guess the middle from that but it’s not very well connected to the beginning. That type of ending would suggest that the story was about an on and off couple when the beginning doesn’t set that up. And most of all, it cheapens the story when it’s actually deep.
In the case of this story, it would be a mistake to use this literal beginning and ending. Because though it seems like a love story, that’s not what it ultimately is. It’s an internal Worldview shift. A maturation story.
Though on the surface, it might seem like the climax of the story was when MC heard the big news about LI, that’s not it. I believe the actual climax was the very last ending image when MC just sits in front of the fireplace and doesn’t say anything. This young actor did an amazing job, btw. That simple quiet moment as he sat there was so incredibly powerful. You can see the emotions that run through him though no one says or does anything. But as his tears turn into a smile, you know exactly what he’s thinking. He’s thinking about a conversation he had with his father earlier. At least, that’s my assumption. When he finally gets up off the floor, he’s changed. This was the climax of the actual story. The more I talk about it, the more I’m amazed by it. It’s so powerful. He just sits there and it makes me feel things.
I don’t know if the book ends the same way but I really want to finish it to see how this moment was done there.
Hmmm, it gave me an idea. What if the entire book is being told from the pov of this character that sits in front of the fireplace the entire time he’s telling the story? Wow, that would be so trippy. I need to finish it.
So, describing the events of this story would be a mistake. This story isn’t about a relationship. It’s about a boy that learns how to cope with loss.
What beginning and ending would I give it? It’s tricky, I’m going to have to think about it. Hmm, the only way I can think of is
Beginning: Boy that’s never been in love before meets a stranger.
Ending: Boy accepts that losing his first love doesn’t have to define his future ability to love.
Probably not the best way to say it but it encapsulates what the story was about and one can make plenty of assumptions how the story got to that ending.
Gosh, I’m going to have to dive deep to analyze this story because it’s a masterpiece.