by Loren Niemi – August 7, 2021
In America we are used to stories that begin, “Once upon a time…” It is familiar and recognizable. What follows is not here and now, but some other place, some other time in which, as often as not, magic and adventure are possible. What follows is a story that proceeds to an ending which, as often as not, concludes with “Happily ever after.” It takes us out of that other time and place and returns us to the here and now. This too is a metaphor that all is well, that the world turned upside down has been righted.
“Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are not the only beginnings and endings of stories. There are dozens, hundreds, of culturally specific beginnings and endings but all serve the same purpose to mark a departure from the here and now into another realm. Why? It is easy to see the utility of those formula beginnings and endings in traditional stories. They are a shorthand that lets the audience suspend judgment, and enjoy the lessons, values, modeling of behaviors that are contained in the entertainment, that is the story.
With personal, literary and contemporary stories, how we begin is more problematic. Those old formulas don’t work or don’t work as well. What we need is a start that does two things simultaneously: provides an invitation for the audience into the world in which the story takes place and sets the tone for what follows. A strong image or a particular action is called for. To use a fishing image, we need to set the hook as soon as possible. Sometimes the storyteller needs to provide some context but the danger is that we offer too much background or wind up talking about the story rather than tell it. Often we forget that we can begin with the moment the world is turned upside down or an invocation of time and place that sets that hook, and fill in the background as the story proceeds.
How we end the story is also problematic when we are not using a traditional formula. Here the central question is where or what do we want the audience to have when the story ends. Emotional satisfaction? A good laugh? A question? A hunger for more? An implied moral? On that point, let me beg you not to end a story with an explicit moral. If you are pointing out the lesson, either you distrust the audience’s intelligence to draw their own conclusion or distrust your ability to demonstrate within the story what the “moral” is. Depending on what we want the audience to be left with will determine where the story ends. Even then, it is helpful to have a strong or satisfying image that marks “done” rather than sputtering to a stop or as is the case with many slam stories, coming to an abrupt and unsupported end because you ran out of time.
Both beginnings and ending require careful crafting. It has been said that if you know where you begin and where you end the middle will fill itself in. True enough when you are crafting the whole of the story. Once you decide how to start and have some idea of where you want to end, the decisions about how to get there are structural. A leads to B leads to C or some variation of that depending on the particular plot form that serves the story. Conversely, if you begin with a particular plot form in mind, the possible satisfactory and functional beginnings and endings are finite. It is the choosing and the structuring after, that makes the story live.
Which brings me to the next class from the American School of Storytelling: a class specifically on the crafting of beginnings and endings. Three sessions of hands-on exercises for deciding what kind of a beginning and ending best suits the material you want to tell. Whether you are looking to wrestle a personal story into an engaging tale or reimagine a traditional story without “once upon a time” (or to find a compelling image/invitation into that world after “once upon a time…”) these sessions will give you useful tools to shape the material.