A Story Should Have a Beginning, a Muddle and an End

Peter De Vries? Philip Larkin? C. E. Lombardi? Larry Gelbart? Avi’s Young Reader? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When faced with the difficult task of writing effectively some people insist on a guaranteed formula. As a confirmed scribbler I am convinced that there is no formula, but I laughed when I heard this:

A story consists of a beginning, a muddle, and an end.

Can you figure out who first articulated this comical blueprint? It has been credited to the English poet Philip Larkin and the American humorist Peter De Vries.

Quote Investigator: Both of these attributions are backed by good evidence. Peter De Vries used a version of the phrase to describe his novel “Tunnel of Love” in the 1950s, and Philip Larkin called it a “classic formula” for a book in the 1970s.

Yet, the earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Yale Literary Magazine” in 1909. The author C. E. Lombardi published a short fictional sketch in which two friends exchanged banter while attending a theatrical production in New York [LBME]:

The play made its start pleasantly enough but since it was a musical comedy Meriweather felt it incumbent to produce some slighting remark.

“This sort of thing, at least, hasn’t changed much while I’ve been away from New York,” he said.

“They keep the same form,” said Fairfield; “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The tripartite structure outlined in the adage is a satirical trope that modifies a formulation given in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Here is a 1746 version of Aristotle’s words translated into English that speaks of a beginning, a middle, and an end [APJU]:

A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning supposes nothing wanting before itself; and requires something after it: the middle supposes something that went before, and requires something to follow after: the end requires nothing after itself, but supposes something that goes before.

In 1909 the C. E. Lombardi stated that the form of a New York musical was “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” The details for this citation were mentioned above.

In 1954 an article in the New York Times discussed an upcoming novel by the comic author Peter De Vries titled “Tunnel of Love”. The writer used the specification to describe his own work [PDNY]

Mr. DeVries, who is on the staff of The New Yorker, describes his book as “a novel with a beginning, a muddle and an end.”

“The Tunnel of Love” was based on a series of short stories stitched together. A review in the Chicago Tribune in 1954 mentioned this creative genesis and presented the adage credited to De Vries. This version was slightly different because it claimed that a novel in general should have these parts [PDCT]:

Mr. De Vries [whose publishers triumphantly quote his mot, “A novel should have a beginning, a muddle, and an end”] has fabricated a kind of unity for his book by introducing an unsuccessful cartoonist, Augie Poole, whom the hero attempts to rescue from a series of amorous misadventures.

In a 1973 article in the New York Times the playwright and essayist Jean Kerr attributed the saying to De Vries and applied it to her own plays [PDJK]:

I could conceivably find the energy to write a play if not every year, perhaps every third year. I don’t mean a good, bad or even an acceptable play, just a play—something that Peter de Vries describes as having “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” (And before there are any questions from the back of the room, I know that is an old-fashioned Concept.)

In 1978 the prominent English poet Philip Larkin used the expression while discussing modern novels [PLEQ]:

Far too many relied on the classic formula of a beginning, a muddle, and an end.

In 1997 the phrase “A Beginning, a Muddle and an End” appeared in a high-profile location without an attribution. It was used as the title of a book review article in the New York Times by the television writer and screenwriter Larry Gelbart. The book under review was by John Gregory Dunne and the subtitle referred to the experiences that Dunne described in his book: A screenwriter’s view of the making of a movie script, eight years and 27 drafts later. Within the review Gelbart used the saying to criticize recent movie scripts [LGNY]:

Such scripts tend to be filled with any number of plot holes, individual scenes that work while the whole of the picture doesn’t, all too often leaving the audience as much in the dark as the theater it’s sitting in. Increasingly, to court and to please the stars, the monster is turning out pictures that have a beginning, a muddle and an end.

In 1997 the widely-syndicated columnist George Will used the saying while crediting an unknown wit [UWGW]:

As a wit once said, every story should have a beginning, a muddle and an end, and we are early in the muddle portion of this story, which currently concerns the Senate’s sense of itself.

In 2008 an award winning children’s author with a single moniker, Avi, published a book titled “A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: the Right Way to Write Writing”. The author’s note discussed the phrase [AVBE]:

Some time ago one of my young readers wrote to me about writing. Among the many wise things he said was that a good story consists of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” It was the smartest description of a story I’ve ever read. I wish I knew his name.

In conclusion, QI would tentatively give credit to C. E. Lombardi as the originator of this humorous verbal triptych. In addition, Peter De Vries and Philip Larkin later helped to popularize the expression. Either may have independently created the saying. Thanks for your inquiry.

[LBME] 1909 April, The Yale Literary Magazine, Section: Portfolio, His Own Petard by C. E. Lombardi, Start Page 308, Quote Page 309, Conducted by the Students of Yale University, New Haven. (Google Books full view) link

[APJU] 1746, Critical Observations on Shakespeare by John Upton, Page 67 and 68, Printed for G. Hawkins in Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books full view) link

[PDNY] 1954 May 4, New York Times, Books and Authors, Page 27, New York. (ProQuest)

[PDCT] 1954 May 23, Chicago Tribune, Some Good Stories Make Diffuse Book by Milton Crane, Page B5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[PDJK] 1973 May 20, New York Times, [Where Are the Women Playwrights? by Gretchen Cryer], ‘When I Was Young’ by Jean Kerr, Page 129, New York. (ProQuest)

[PLEQ] 2000, Encarta Book of Quotations edited by Bill Swainson, Page 545, [The citation for the Larkin quotation is New Fiction (January 1978)] A Bloomsbury Reference Book, [First Published by St. Martin’s Press, New York]. (Google Books preview) link

[LGNY] 1997 March 2, New York Times, A Beginning, a Muddle and an End Page BR8, New York. (ProQuest)

[UWGW] 1997 August 7, The Times Union, In the Muddle of a Senate Tale by George Will, Page A15, Albany, New York. (NewsBank)

[AVBE] 2008, A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End by Avi, Page not numbered [Author’s note], Harcourt Children’s Books, New York. (Google Books preview; Amazon look inside)

One reply on “A Story Should Have a Beginning, a Muddle and an End”

  1. Dear Dr O’Toole,

    Thank you so much for explaining where this quote came from. Your site came top of the list when I searched for the origination in Google and it has just restored (some) of my faith in the usefulness of search engines!

    I want to use this phrase in a book I am working on, and would have abandoned the phrase were it not for your post. So here’s to you.

    I am delighted to say that in this case my story has had a beginning, a middle and (I very much hope) an end.

    Quentin Pain

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