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.