Once upon a time, there was only one way to tell a story. The story began in the beginning where the readers (or listeners or viewers) met the main character. Then, a problem arose, and the main character had to figure out a solution. Finally, after the problem had been solved, everyone lived happily ever after. Obviously, this three-part summary is an oversimplification, but it does present one basic approach to telling a story while hinting at two others.
The traditional three-part story is called the chronological approach. With this approach, the narrator, or storyteller, describes the events in the order in which they occurred. Thus, a story that covered only one full day would begin in the morning, continue through the afternoon and early evening, and conclude at night.
A classic example of the chronological approach is evident in the movie The Wizard of Oz, based on the book by L. Frank Baum. When the tornado hits Kansas, Dorothy and Toto are transported to the Land of Oz. There, the Munchkins tell Dorothy that in order to go home, she must follow the Yellow Brick Road to The Wizard who will help her. During her journey, of course, she meets The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion, and she helps all of them overcome their problems before she confronts The Wizard, clicks her heels, and discovers that “There is no place like home.”
This method of telling a story works pretty well because most people are familiar with the format, they are accustomed to the pace, and they know what to expect: a character, a problem that involves some tension or excitement, and a solution that typically includes a moral or a lesson. The weakness of this method is that it’s sometimes too predictable.
As a result, some storytellers go to the other extreme. Rather than begin at the beginning, they begin at the end. In other words, they start at the end, go back to the beginning, and, then, move forward. One of my favorite movies begins with the narrator saying, “All true stories end in death; this is a true story.” Thus, the audience knows immediately that the main character will die. Still, I watch the movie intently, not because I am curious about the ending, but because I am curious about how the character will face his death and how others will react to it. This method is often used for well-known, true stories, and the movie I am referring to is Brian’s Song (1971), the story of Brian Piccolo, a professional football player who died of cancer at age 27.
A variation on this start-at-the-end method of storytelling is common in police dramas like CSI, Cold Case, and Without a Trace. These shows usually begin with the crime scene of a murder, a kidnapping, or a theft. When the police arrive, their task is to determine who committed the crime; thus, the detectives work their way back to the beginning by interviewing those who owned the stolen property or who knew the victim. After a series of false leads or incorrect guesses, the detectives eventually find the criminal, determine the motivation, secure a confession, and send the offender off to jail. While this approach has the advantage of keeping the audience members guessing, it can backfire if the outcome becomes obvious too early or too easily.
The third approach to telling a story is to start in the middle. Some storytellers refer to this method as “in medias res,” a Latin phrase for “in the middle of things.” This may actually be the most entertaining method because the story begins at a point of high excitement and, if done well, maintains that high excitement throughout the work. The storyteller will go both forward and backward to advance the plot and fill in the details. Naturally, this balance between past and future is difficult to achieve, and the danger is that the audience may become lost or confused. However, when this method is successful, excited readers will often say, “I couldn’t put the book down” while viewers might say, “I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.”
In the 1993 movie The Fugitive, for example, prisoner Richard Kimble’s story begins when he has an opportunity to escape from the authorities. The viewers don’t know why Kimble is a prisoner or if he can really escape, but the chase is exciting. Then, the chase becomes even more exciting when the story flashes backward periodically to gradually reveal that Kimble is innocent. Thus, as the story moves forward, viewers run with Kimble as he tries to prove his innocence before he’s locked up all over again.
At various times during your college career, your teachers may ask you to write a story. In your first Composition class, for instance, you may have to tell your own story. Later, in a history class, you may have to relate the story of an important leader, a major scientist, or a significant humanitarian. Even your science or business teachers may ask you to explain how a major discovery or event changed the way people lived or communicated. Obviously, your teachers’ expectations and your subject matter may well determine the approach you use. If, however, you have the freedom to choose, try to at least consider all three options before you choose the one that will be the most interesting to your readers.