Beginning, middle, and end part 3: Story types

Mar 5, 2024  |  4 min
More mature than a scribble, but not yet what digital gardener Maggie Appleton calls an “evergreen” idea. A note may have taken a fair amount of time to develop. I think the idea has merit.
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 |  Beginning middle end Primitives MICE quotient Story structure Story Craft

Summary: The three key types of change in stories are revelation, character decision, and external action. These map to idea, character, and event stories in Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient.

Previously, we looked at how Aristotle’s “beginning, middle, and end” was more concerned with completeness than structure. We went on to look at how Aristotle’s framework can be applied to structure, and how Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel format can help fill in the gap in the middle section by structuring change.

In this note, we’ll continue our exploration of beginning, middle, and end by introducing a simple taxonomy of story types with which we can test our new structural framework to see if it holds up.

Orson Scott Card and the 3 types of change

To thoroughly evaluate any framework, we need to make sure it works for a broad range of different story types. But how do you determine what that range ought to be? We need a system for identifying what makes stories different.

It’s tempting to jump to genre, but I think that’s a red herring. Genres can be subdivided nearly infinitely. And, many genre stories end up looking like stories in other genres with only a few significant details changed.

We need something more fundamental.

In Character and Viewpoint, award-winning author Orson Scott Card explores four factors that have come to be called the “MICE quotient.” They are milieu, idea, character, and event. (Card, Pages 62-63)

Card looks at the MICE quotient elements from the perspective of pure story structure, but I think of them in terms of the underlying story engines that create narrative drive. Because of this, I prune out milieu (setting), which I don’t believe is a core source of narrative drive.

That leaves us with three sources of narrative drive: idea, character, and event.

Now, remember that in our framework, the thing that goes in the middle of a story is change. If we use these sources of narrative drive to categorize types of change, something interesting happens.

It turns out, this produces a useful, simple taxonomy for types of stories.

Idea story: a change in understanding

Idea stories revolve around a central question, which the audience wants answered. (Kowal) Who murdered the victim? How will the powerful new technology affect humanity? Why are the aliens here? Etc.

  • The key change in an idea story is about knowledge or understanding.
  • The emotional fulfillment audiences derive from these types of stories is about the thrill of discovery and a feeling of epiphany.
  • The key turning points in idea stories are revelations.

Not all idea stories are mysteries. Sometimes, the question is more around exploring an interesting high concept idea or “what if.” A lot of science fiction features this kind of story, which hinges on a sense of discovery and wonder.

For example, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama is about the “what if” concept represented by the appearance of an alien vessel approaching Earth’s system. Clarke depicts the ship as a kind of interstellar ark, a traveling megastructure containing a cylindrical mini-world, which uses axial rotation to create artificial gravity. More than a “first contact” story, Rama is about exploring what this technological concept could be like.

You could think of a pure idea story as a type of intellectual exercise, a “narrative sudoku puzzle.”

Idea stories can sometimes get a bad reputation for being light on character, but that’s because the characters in a pure idea story aren’t there for dramatic depth. They exist simply to serve as vehicles to explore the question, which is the main focus of the story.

Lastly, it’s worth clarifying that idea is different from theme. The idea operates on the plot level. It provides narrative drive from one moment to the next as clues are revealed and the answer to the question slowly unfolds. The theme operates instead on the level of meaning. It’s the “bigger something” that the story was all about. In police procedurals, for example, the idea is around solving the mystery of who committed the crime. The theme is (usually) an argument that justice prevails in the end.

Character story: a change in belief

Character stories revolve around the choices of the protagonist. They’re explorations of identity. Who is this person, and why does she do what she does? Most importantly, how does she change (or why does she not change)? (Kowal) Strong character stories are generally the most emotionally moving of the story types.

  • The key change in a character story is about the underlying beliefs that drive the protagonst’s behavior and view of herself and the world. (Weiland, Pages 13-16)
  • The emotional fulfillment audiences derive from character stories is catharsis, often from the reaffirmation of their deeply-held values.
  • The key turning points in character stories are the protagonist’s decisions.

Event story: a change in circumstance

Event stories revolve around achieving some kind of outward goal, like possessing an object, gaining the affections of a romantic interest, winning a tournament, or defeating an enemy.

  • The key change in an event story is about the situation and circumstances of the protagonist. (Kowal)
  • The emotional fulfillment audiences derive from event stories is the thrill of doing adventurous things and overcoming obstacles to achieve success.
  • The key turning points in event stories are external disasters (and rescues).


Here’s a quick summary:

Story type Key change Key emotion Turning points
Idea Understanding Discovery Revelation
Character Belief Catharsis Decision
Event Situation Achievement Disaster

If you look at the stories that stand the test of time, you’ll find that most weave together threads of all three types.

However, when it comes time to analyze our theory, it’s easier if we deal with each individually. Thus, in the next few notes, we’ll isolate each story type and examine how it might possibly fit into our “beginning, middle, and end” framework.

Onward . . .

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