Friday, 25 March 2016

Beginning, Middle, End - A Writing Exercise

It was Aristotle, apparently, who first drew attention to what he considered necessary in the structure of a piece of writing - he was speaking of drama but I think it's applicable to most creative writing.
He said
'A whole is what has a beginning, a middle and an end.'

Other people have had ideas about what order these should come in and we'll come to that later.


Billy Connolly's poem Aristotle considers these three aspects of structure.


This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woollen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Write down five or six things, incidents, images etc. under each of these headings:
beginnings, middles endings.

From this create a piece of your own - poetry or prose

Freytag's Pyramid - a development of Aristotle's theory of structure.

Can apply to poems as well as narratives.
Can add Denouement on the right-hand horizontal


Other 'thinkers' have had ideas about the order beginning, middle and ending might appear.

Jean-Luc Goddard [sometimes attributed to other commentators] said that ' A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.'

Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow is told backwards
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is book-ended by the present and told mostly in flashback

This technique has a venerable history. Its posh name is in medias res which translates as into the middle of things.

Examples of poetry and fiction that starts in the middle:

in medias res: into the middle of things
'Whoever Was Using This Bed' by Raymond Carver
The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.
“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God who is it? Answer it!”
I can’t find the light, but I get to the other room, where the phone is, and pick it up after the fourth ring.

'The Voice' by Thomas Hardy

Woman much missed how you call to me, call to me
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me
But as at first, when our day was fair.

'The Gambler' by Dostoevsky

At length I returned from two weeks leave of absence to find that my patrons had arrived three days ago in Roulettenberg. I received from them a welcome quite different to that which I had expected. The General eyed me coldly, greeted me in rather haughty fashion, and dismissed me to pay my respects to his sister. It was clear that from SOMEWHERE money had been acquired. I thought I could even detect a certain shamefacedness in the General's glance.

'Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

'Lila' by Marilynne Robinson

The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn't holler any more and they didn't hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I'll do it! and then a woman grabbed her from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldn't let her near them any more because she picked them up by their tails sometimes.

Picture + boxes

NB The idea here is to write the synopsis of a story. It's not for writing the story itself.
A similar diagram of the Cinderella story would have:
Beginning: Cinderella is forced to work as a servant to a cruel stepmother and stepsisters.
Middle: In spite of her situation, by using magic, her fairy godmother helps her to attend
the Princes' Ball. She is warned that the magic stops working at midnight. At the
ball she attracts the attention of the Prince but has to hurry away as the clock
strikes midnight. One of her evening slippers is left behind.
End: After a fruitless search for the owner of the slipper, the Price arrives at
Cinderella's house and finds that the slipper fits her. he asks her to marry him.
Cue: violins!



The party gets noisy. Grandpa, hands over his head, is whooping and encouraging everyone to join in. Josie leans over to comfort Daisy who is upset and covering her ears with her hands. Paul glances at Josie, over Daisy's head. The look on his face suggests that this whole thing had been a big mistake.


WRITING TASK - for a group activity

The picture is the Middle scene of this story. In the Middle box, give the character a name and say what you think is happening. 5 Minutes
Pass the sheet to the next person.
Now fill in the Beginning box. What happened before the Middle? 5 Minutes

Pass sheet on.
Fill in the Ending box. If you can think of a suitable title write it at the top of the Beginning box.

The same technique can be used in individual writing, to help structure the plot of a story or the 'shape' of a poem

Using postcards and pictures.

Choose one picture and use it as one scene in a three scene story.

Heather Shaw

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