Structure of a Story, Beginning, Middle, and End, and How to Mess it Up

When I first began writing I would look at a magazine’s submission requirements and then write a story that met those requirements. Before I sent them off to the publishers, I would have several readers take a look and offer critiques. One reader was a Ph.D. in English. He always had one element in his critique that didn’t change: “Your ending was too abrupt; it wasn’t satisfying.” The other readers occasionally said the same thing, but he always did.

One day, when we were having lunch, I asked we dissect his recurring comment. I was looking for a pattern that would explain his comment. More important, I was looking for what I could do to change his comment to, “I loved your ending.”

The first thing that emerged from our discussion that I was writing with the publisher’s submission guidelines in mind. The one that weighed most heavily on me was the length of the submission.

(In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rogue metal smith and bandit from Attica who attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their leg, to force them to fit the size of his iron bed. When something is Procrustean, different lengths or sizes or properties are fitted to an arbitrary standard.)

What I was doing was keeping an eye on the word count as I wrote, then stretching my story or cutting it off to make it fit the publisher’s arbitrary standard. Most often it was the latter. I would near the end, then find an ending that ‘fit’ right there and quit writing. After all, the publisher said, no more than N words.

Once we had that issue identified, he went on to what he considered was the most important issue for him. My endings weren’t satisfying to him. While the first issue influenced this one, there was more to the second issue. He likes endings that tie everything up. The conflicts are resolved. The tension caused by conflict falls, and LEAVES READERS SATISFIED. I thought he meant he liked happy endings at first. He does, but not only happy endings. He likes ending that give him the feeling that things came out like they should have.

My endings just ended. They also didn’t necessarily tie everything together. But, the important thing was the reader wasn’t satisfied. He emphasized that as a writer, I have to satisfy both the editor and the readers. Perhaps both can be accomplished together. But by my concern about satisfying the publisher’s request for a certain length, I was losing my readers.