All stories have unique plotlines and characters that make them stand out from the crowd, but at the heart of many narratives is a common dramatic structure which many utilise.
Throughout all forms of storytelling, from novels and flash fiction to movies and videogames, you’re likely familiar with Freytag’s pyramid, a general structure which can be applied in one way or another to almost all, besides more experimental fiction.
In any literature or creative writing class, Freytag’s pyramid is commonly taught as a way for readers to dissect texts and for writers to outline their stories.
Freytag’s pyramid definition
What is Freytag’s pyramid? In the 19th century, German novelist Gustav Freytag developed this dramatic structure to analyse how the plots often unfold in stories.
As part of this framework, Freytag outlined five key stages that any narrative follows:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Catastrophe, resolution or denouement
Freytag’s pyramid is also sometimes referred to as Freytag’s triangle, with both synonyms referring to the shape outlined by diagrams that visualise the story structure.
The origins of Freytag’s pyramid
Gustav Freytag wrote Die Technik des Dramas (Technique of the Drama) in 1863, a study of dramatic structures which explained the role of each act in five-act narratives.
This framework became known as Freytag’s pyramid. The original study was focused on explaining the elements most common to Shakespearean tragedies. Although it has been adapted to suit other stories, Freytag’s pyramid isn’t applicable to all forms of narrative which instead follow different types of dramatic structures.
The 5 stages of Freytag’s pyramid
Freytag’s pyramid outlines the following 5 stages:
At the beginning of any story is the introduction or exposition. This opening section establishes the main characters, the time setting and location, and the general tone of the story.
No major changes happen in this stages until it ends with what Freytag calls the “complication”. In more contemporary dramatic structures, this is often referred to as the inciting incident, the moment the protagonist is forced to take action.
2. Rising action
Following the introduction, the inciting incident triggers the next section where the protagonist takes a more active role in the story. Actions follow that cause an increase in tension with each plot point, leading up to the climax.
This section is often call the rising action, although Freytag originally called it rising movement.
At the centre of Frytag’s pyramid is the climax. In his framework, this refers more to the turning point in the narrative and the main character arc. For example, in a tragedy this is the point where events start to go badly, whereas in comedies things start to improve.
This is one of the most pivotal points of the story as everything either builds up to or away from this moment.
In more contemporary understandings of the term, the climax of the story is generally found near the end rather than at the centre.
4. Falling action
The falling action appears as the aftermath of the climax. In tragedies, things start going downhill for the protagonist, with them being punished by their fatal flaw and the results of their earlier actions.
During this section, tensions start to unwind but the story must still keep the reader interested as it works towards the final section.
5. Catastrophe or denouement
Depending on what type of story is being told, different terms can be more or less applicable to the final section.
Resolutions is the most general term, as all the plotlines and themes should be resolved by this point. But, as Freytag was mostly analysing tragedies within his framework, his deemed this stage “catastrophe” because it’s the moment where the protagonist receives their comeuppance.
Denouement can also be used. This refers more to the very final stages of the story, with some writers seeing this as a separate section coming after the catastrophe, like an epilogue. Major conflicts are generally resolved before the denouement which instead focuses on resolving any remaining plotlines.
Freytag’s pyramid vs other dramatic structures
While Freytag’s pyramid is still studied and deployed by some writers, other types of dramatic structure tend to be more reflective of contemporary storytelling conventions.
For example, most people are familiar with the climax coming near the end of a story, unlike in Freytag’s framework. Likewise, some narratives will still have a turning point in the middle, but not all.
|Freytag’s pyramid||Modern dramatic structures|
|Introduction (exposition then inciting incident)||Introduction (exposition then inciting incident)|
|Rising movement||Rising action|
So while Freytag’s pyramid is useful in many situations, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to analysing plot structures.
However, many dramatic structures relevant to contemporary storytelling use what might be a variation of Freytag’s triangle where the shape is skewed. The rising action is elongated and given much more significance in the overall structure, therefore pushing the climax nearer the end.
When to use Freytag’s pyramid
Because Freytag was mostly interested in tragedies when he constructed his framework, his structure can still be applied to contemporary tragedies.
This is similar to an Icarus story arc, where the narrative tracks the rise and fall of a character. For example, many crime dramas and gangster films (think of Scorecese’s Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street) us this approach. The audience witnesses everything going well for the main protagonists until a turning point that leads to the decline in their fortunes.
For many other stories, however, other dramatic structures provide more flexibility when it comes to outlining your own plot.
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Freytag’s pyramid is a useful tool for analysing the structure of many stories, particularly classical plays. However, it’s limited as a creative writing tool as it doesn’t reflect the narrative conventions that many writers and readers would expect in the majority of contemporary stories. Using a more universal dramatic structure can be more productive in helping your own creative process and improving your writing skills.
If you want to read more about Freytag’s framework, you can find his Technique of the Drama free online.