This poem by Billy Collins conveys how three-act structure can take a story… anywhere.
In Poetics, Aristotle wrote “A whole is that which has a beginning and middle and end.” His articulation of each of these three parts and how they fit together is as follows:
“A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it. An end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it. And a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it.”
Beginning. Middle. End. Three parts. Three movements. Aristotle’s take on the basic structure of a story.
Is this structure old-fashioned? Does it restrict creativity? Do these three movements inhibit where a writer can take a story?
In answer to these questions, I offer a poem by Billy Collins. Dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times, if you think you cannot possibly bring yourself to read, let alone enjoy poetry, I suggest you give Collins a try. Here is one of his poems which in my eyes is an homage to Aristotle and his iteration of what comprises the structure of a story.
By Billy Collins
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 woolen 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.
In other words, with a story comprised of three movements, a writer can go anywhere they want. There are endless possibilities in terms of characters, plot, scenes, themes, surprises, twists, turns. The only limitation is the scope of the writer’s imagination.
Story as Beginning, Middle, and End gives the writer a context. And within that context, we are free to go anywhere, do anything, explore everything.
Here is Collins reading ‘Aristotle’ accompanied by images suggested in the poem:
For more information on Billy Collins, go here.