Beginning, middle, and end part 1: Aristotle misinterpreted

Jan 2, 2024  |  2 min
 |  Beginning middle end Primitives Story structure Story Craft

Summary: Aristotle's claim that a story should have a 'beginning, middle, and end' seems to be more about wholeness than structure.

“No doubt you have heard the old adage: ‘Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.’ . . . Many plays met their Waterloo for the very reason that their authors, consciously or otherwise, obeyed this Aristotelian dictum.”
— Lajos Egri (Egri, Page 199)

Perhaps the most popular of the story structure primitives we owe to Aristotle. Quite a few story experts have cited him over the years, proclaiming the excellencies of his magical formula: beginning, middle, and end.

I confess, when I first encountered this, it frustrated me. It seemed both obvious and unhelpful. Of course a beginning is a beginning, a middle a middle, an end an end. The descriptions felt like tautologies, using the words to define themselves.

At some point, I decided to read Poetics. In doing so, I discovered that I’d missed Aristotle’s point.

Here’s what he said:

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole . . . A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” (Aristotle, Part VII)

Do you see it? Aristotle isn’t focused on creating a structural roadmap here. Instead, he’s making a point about completeness.

“A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” (Aristotle, Part VII) (Emphasis mine.)

There’s a lot packed in there. Let’s look closely.

What Aristotle is saying — as near as I can tell — is that a story should contain every essential part of itself and nothing extra.

  • Want to know where your story begins? Look for the beginning of “causal necessity.” What’s the first essential domino to fall — the one that sets everything off? If you start much before that, you’re including extra details that aren’t part of the story. If you start after it, you’re missing something.
  • Likewise, if you need to know where your story ends, look for the point at which nothing “follows . . . by necessity.” Ending before that leaves the story incomplete. Ending after that introduces more needless extras.
  • The middle is the thing that connects the two, the chain of meaningfully related events between the beginning of causality and the end of necessity.

Aristotle’s point isn’t (primarily, at least) to identify different structural sections of a story. His point is that a story should be whole.

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