If we strip any story down to its core, we are left with a beginning, middle, and end — as cliche as that may be. The beginning, middle, and end are story building blocks and together create a structure. Most of us innately understand every story has a beginning, middle, and end; after all, stories have been with us all our lives. As writers, exploring structure on a deeper level offers tools for us to use when creating our own stories. Writing stories is a craft. As a starting point, to become good storytellers, we need to know the basics, aka the foundation of “story”; what elements make up a story, what a story is and isn’t, and basic story structure.
This post will focus on structure by dissecting the follow popular fairytales; “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and “Cinderella”.
The beginning of a story sets up a promise for what’s yet to come. The beginning shows a snip of the protagonist’s life, their status quo (life as the protagonist knows it). Consider the openings for the popular fairy tales; “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and “Cinderella”.
Hansel and Gretel:
Impoverished parents leave the brother and sister to perish in the forest. The beginning paves the way for the middle of the story; lost in the forest, the siblings find the gingerbread house amongst the trees.
The widowed king remarries and dies, leaving his kingdom and daughter to his new wife. Jealous of the princess’s beauty, the queen detests the young woman. The setup of the relationship between the women promises the reader conflict between the evil queen and innocent Snow White will come.
Orphaned, Cindy is at her cruel stepmother’s mercy and raised as a servant, her social status is similar to a slave. The story’s beginning promises the reader conflict between Cindy and her well-off step-family, and the class system within society.
Once the protagonist’s status quo is established, the story progresses to the middle.
The middle of stories is where the bulk of the action happens and should make up at least 50% of the word count. Middles feature the trials and errors the protagonist faces. Let’s consider the middles for “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and “Cinderella”;
Hansel and Gretel:
Abandoned brother and sister try following bread crumbs home and fail. Lost, they find the gingerbread house and are captured by the witch who enjoys eating children. Gretel plans their escape.
Fearing for her life, Snow White escapes her stepmother and survives an encounter with a hitman sent on the queen’s orders. Seven little dudes offer the girl asylum. The queen finds her, and in disguise of a hag, offers her an apple. Snow White eats the poisonous apple and falls into a comma.
The poor girl can’t go to the Prince’s ball, because she has no frock, shoes, or transport. Her fairy godmother comes to the rescue by providing her with the resources she needs and sends her to the ball. Cindy charms the prince. The clock strikes 12 and Cindy runs off, leaving her slipper. The prince hunts his kingdom for the slipper owner with the promise of marriage.
A lot happens in the middle of the story. The protagonist has a tug-a-war of “wins” and “loses”. These “wins” and “loses” charge towards the climax (final showdown) and ending.
The end of a story includes a climax and conclusion. In other words — the outcome of the story set-up and the trials established during the beginning and middle. Let’s return to “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and “Cinderella”;
Hansel and Gretel:
Gretel saves her brother from the cannibal witch by roasting her in the oven. Free at last, the siblings find their father and return home. Their mother died during their absence and is blamed for their child abuse. They all lived happily ever after, except for mummy and the witch. PS the children need therapy.
The prince conveniently happens to be in the area and kisses Snow White (thankfully they don’t live in the 21st century or Prince Charming would be arrested for sexual harassment). Snow White wakes up. The pair marry.
Cindy is the last woman in the kingdom to try on the slipper. Perfect fit (she must have deformed feet or something if her shoes only fit her). Anyway, she won the lotto and marries royalty. Her step-family is punished.
The protagonist’s story reaches a conclusion and a new status quo is formed — they all lived happily ever after. Of course, endings can be happy, sad, or neutral depending on the writer.
Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. I’ve only provided a starting point for beginner writers. Writing beyond a short story is a different beast and the story structure more complex. However, a story, no matter the size, needs a beginning, middle, and end.
What every story needs and what story isn’t…