Understanding Freytag’s Pyramid: What is it? One of the earliest dramatic buildings is Freytag’s Pyramid.
The German playwright Gustav Freytag developed The Freytag’s Pyramid, a diagram of dramatic structure, in the 19th century. It lists the seven crucial dramatic components of a gripping story: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement.
1. What is Dramatic Structure?
The notion of dramatic structure, which has its roots in Aristotle’s Poetics, holds that good stories can be divided into five dramatic elements, often exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion and that writers should always contain these five components when crafting a story.
2. Freytag’s Pyramid: Rising Action and Falling Action
a. Freytag’s Pyramid: Rising Action
Up until the finale, the central conflict of the plot is explored in the mounting action. In this section of the story, things frequently “become worse“: a bad choice is made, the antagonist causes the protagonist harm, additional characters complicate the storyline further, etc.
Rising action typically consumes the most pages in stories. While this section of the novel examines the tension and complexity of the story, the growing action should delve far deeper than merely the plot.
The reader frequently learns important details of the past through escalating action. The reader should understand more about the character’s motivations, the setting, the issues being discussed, and possibly even the climax as the struggle develops.
Finally, it should be obvious how each narrative element relates to the climax and resolution of the story when you look back at the story’s rising action. But let’s write the climax first.
b. Freytag’s Pyramid: Falling Action
The author examines what happens after the climax in the descending activity. Do new disputes consequently develop? How does the story’s finale make a statement about its main themes? How do the characters respond to the climax’s permanent changes?
The hardest part of a story builds is frequently the falling action. While maintaining the emphasis on the climax and its aftermath, the author must begin to wrap up loose ends from the primary conflict, investigate larger ideas and themes, and move the story toward some sort of resolution.
Although the rising and falling action activities appear very different, if the rising action moves the plot away from “normal,” the falling action is a return to a “new normal.”
However, the plot must still hold the reader’s attention. Be careful to elaborate on the setting of the story, the secrets that exist there, and everything else that helps your story to be intriguing when writing the falling action.
According to his theory, good stories may be divided into two parts: play and counterplay, with the climax occurring in the middle. The Freytag’s triangle formed by these two halves has five dramatic components: an opening, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, and a denouement or disaster.
During his lifetime, Freytag was one of Germany’s most well-known writers, but his Pyramid is the piece for which he is most known. He built his concept on the critical ideas of Aristotle’s philosophy. According to the Aristotelian Poetics idea, “a narrative must have a beginning, middle, and end“.
The Freytag’s Pyramid is a dramatic plot story structure that was developed by Gustav Freytag in his 1863 book Freytag’s Pyramid Technique of the Drama.
Over the past more than 150 years, it has been taught in countless classrooms and creative writing workshops around the world and has become one of the most popular dramatic structures.
The plot diagram from Freytag’s Pyramid in the 1863 edition of Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, was originally translated.
Even if we weren’t explicitly taught about this tale’s plot structure, I believe that many of us have a general understanding of it.
However, after really reading Freytag’s Pyramid Technique, I became aware that the plot structure I had previously learned didn’t actually correspond to how the German author had conceived of it. I was astonished to discover that several of the terms Freytag’s pyramid used were different from what has since been taught.
For instance, the phrase “denouement” is frequently used in articles about Freytag’s Pyramid to describe a crucial aspect of the plot. However, Freytag’s pyramid never uses the phrase denouement (not even in the original German).
Additionally, I discovered that many of the concepts are really different from how we now comprehend them.
I’ve attempted to summarise Freytag’s Pyramid below using my understanding of it from Freytag’s Pyramid Technique as well as some more recent interpretations. However, it might be worthwhile to read his work independently if you are interested in this topic.
Freytag’s pyramid is not a one-size-fits-all design, make no mistake about it. It points out narrative conventions shared by classical and Shakespearean tragedies, such as a revelation or plot twist that upends everything and brings about disaster for the hero.
As a result, Freytag’s pyramid has less use when writing comedies or other upbeat genres where the protagonist usually wins out.
Freytag’s Pyramid five-act plot structure is just one of several strategies that authors can employ to produce a complete and fulfilling story for readers, alongside the hero’s journey, the three-act story structure, and more contemporary models like Dan Harmon’s story circle.
Before we continue, it’s important to know that while Freytag’s pyramid ideas were first centered on drama, they can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction writing, including books, plays, TV, movies, novels, memoirs, and short stories.
3. 5 STAGES OF FREYTAG’S PYRAMID
a. Using Freytag’s Pyramid: Introduction – Establish the characters and stakes
The objective of this first act is to acquaint the reader with the plot and pique their attention. It poses and responds to the queries “where am I?” and “what’s happening?”
The characters’ circumstances must be explained in the first act, as well as the reader’s introduction to the universe and how things typically work. The reader (or audience) is thrown into an unfamiliar setting.
Some authors divide the first act into two parts, the “exposition” and the “inciting incident,” which correspond to the first and second questions above.
In the introduction, we get our first look at the scene and the characters.
Additionally, the author will provide some background information about those very few people, or their “backstory,” by outlining their interactions and circumstances.
Example: Cinderella Story
Consider the Disney adaptation of Cinderella. I’ll wager that you are familiar with the main plot.
According to the introduction, Cinderella is a good-hearted young woman who resides with her evil stepmother and stepsisters. She is compelled to carry out their unfavorable home duties and live alone in their tower.
Her only companions since her devoted father has passed away are the mice and birds, who converse with her when none of her evil relatives are present. Then, towards the conclusion of that introduction, a crucial event (the thrilling force) takes place.
The inciting incident drives the narrative’s increasing action. For the protagonist, it signals a shift and the beginning of their adventure and battle. Do you recall what happens in Cinderella’s story?
Of course, the ball’s invitation! Cinderella is now setting out on her journey to the ball (dressed appropriately, of course).
b. Freytag’s Pyramid: RISE – Things seem to be on the up.
“The narrative intensifies” on the ascent. The protagonist advances in this own stage of the story, possibly encountering obstacles and difficulties.
The middle section of Freytag’s pyramid, where tension is building and the plot intricacy is increasing, is called the second act. Act 2 explains what is at stake for the characters while making the false hope-filled promise that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
As a result, the events set in motion by the inciting occurrence now gain pace. Suspense, anxiety, or character development are the ways that the stakes, tension, and hope are expressed.
It’s where the suspense heightens, the tension mounts, the characters come to life, and we, the readers, wait on edge to see if the protagonist will prevail!
Example: Cinderella Story
Don’t you remember how tense you were throughout Cinderella? All of Cinderella’s fumbling attempts to put together a dress, all of the disasters the stepfamily created to divert her attention, and all of the singing!
The outfit was then destroyed, which was the biggest setback!
Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears as the plot intensifies and magically makes everything beautiful. One problem with the idea, though: the magic will stop working at midnight.
Dances, more singing, a lovely night, and the clock reaching midnight are all still to come in the plot. The prince chases Cinderella after the glass slipper comes off, but all he finds is a single shoe.
Cinderella has returned to the tower at last, scrubbing and singing her sorrows away while daydreaming of the prince and the wonderful ball.
Will Cinderella ever meet the person who will undoubtedly become her true love (after all, all that singing and dancing must be love, right?)
How will the prince ever locate Cinderella while she is imprisoned in the tower? The shoe’s owner is wanted by the prince.
These issues are addressed at the climax.
c. Using Freytag’s Pyramid: CLIMAX – The world is turned upside-down.
The protagonist’s situation changes at the climax, for better or worse. The turning point in the story is this specific time.
The climax in the tragedy model is a point of no return rather than the major showdown at the conclusion, such as Superman versus Lex Luther or Frodo at Mount Doom.
When you reach the top of a roller coaster, gravity takes over and you lose the illusion of control. It’s a pivotal moment that transforms everything.
Sometimes the climax is a really dramatic occurrence, like when Medea murders her kids. Other times, it manifests as an inner insight, such as a fresh revelation of one’s cowardice and a resultant resolve to confront one’s concerns.
Following then, the plot develops further, but it does so in light of the climax’s discoveries.
Example: Cinderella Story
When Cinderella descends to the ground floor, the Grand Duke can check to see if the one and only glass slipper fits.
Cinderella proves she is the princess’s ideal bride after avoiding yet another hiccup (the stepmother trips the Duke, who then drops and smashes the shoe, but Cinderella has the match!).
In a tragedy, the reflection point is when the plot starts to fall apart and things start to get worse.
d. Using Freytag’s Pyramid: FALL – We’re heading for tragedy.
That wordplay will help you recall what the fall is—this is where the fallout occurs. Here, the climax’s outcomes are seen.
Keep in mind that Freytag designed his pyramid for dramatic or tragic realistic genres. Therefore, for him, the fall typically represented the protagonist’s quest or journey continuing to unravel.
When the protagonist passes the line beyond which there is no turning back, the plot moves quickly and with an increasing sense of certainty. Since this is a tragedy, there is always a sense of impending doom.
As in Act 2, there are few moments of suspense in the return period, often known as the reversal, but this time the tension is stronger because of everything that has gone before.
Example: Cinderella Story
Even while you might not consider Cinderella to be a comedy, it does have a happy ending. It also has a serious flaw.
Cinderella gets married soon after having her shoes fitted.
We don’t actually watch her cruel family’s home fall apart or her delight as she prepares for her wedding, but we can imagine those things happening.
e. Using Freytag’s Pyramid: Catastrophe – The inevitable becomes true.
The final failure in the story happens at this point. Recall that Freytag concentrated on tragedies. The hero’s journey of the protagonist comes to a devastating conclusion.
Recall how I said that Freytag’s Pyramid has undergone modifications over time. That disastrous finale was one of those changes.
When the character is eventually brought to their lowest point, catastrophe occurs. Catastrophe, like the climax, can take many different forms: a character could pass away, become bankrupt, or lose everyone’s respect.
Act 1’s predictions about the character’s future come true. Consider Lennie’s passing in Of Mice and Men or Oedipus’s blinding. Whatever the tragedy, it serves as a dramatic resolution to the suspense when everything finally breaks down.
Denouements are occasionally seen as Freytag’s sixth element, despite the fact that his original study did not address them. A denouement gives closure, answering all outstanding issues, and tying up loose ends in the story. It may also hint at how the tragedy will be resolved in the novel.
Example: SHAKESPEARE AND Cinderella Story
Shakespeare’s tragedies come to mind: Romeo, Juliet, and several of their companions are also dead, and Othello kills himself in addition to Hamlet and almost everyone else. There is a lot of death, and those stories come to an end.
What should we term Cinderella’s “happily ever after” finish as it has a joyful ending, though?
4. Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Modern Dramatic Structures
Before narrative was revolutionized by the development of radio, film, and television, Freytag’s pyramid was created close to 200 years ago. It follows that the development of plot structure theory since then is not unexpected.
Between Freytag and contemporary story structure theory, there are four key distinctions to be made:
A. Freytag’s Pyramid Is Great for Tragedy. Modern Theories Are More Universal
Freytag was primarily drawn to one kind of narrative: tragedy. He regarded it as the highest caliber of narrative. Nearly all of the stories he studies in Freytag’s Technique are tragedies, as are all of the books and plays he authored.
This led him to develop a framework for a story structure that is best suited to a specific dramatic arc, a tragedy (more precisely, an Icarus Story arc, which you can read about here), but isn’t very beneficial for authors of happy-ending stories.
The Write Structure, Story Grid, or even Save the Cat are much more general frameworks that better represent a larger range of stories than Freytag’s Pyramid, even though it can be helpful for authors, especially those who write tragedies.
B. Modern Theories Place the Climax Later in The Story
The phrase “climax” is one of the key distinctions. According to Freytag’s structure, the climax occurs in the center of the narrative, serving as a significant turning point.
What Freytag refers to as the climax is really referred to as the “midpoint” for a conventional concept of a three-act tale structure, such as that found in Story Grid or Save the Cat.
See the illustration below for an illustration:
These plot structures place the climax at the conclusion of the second or third act, and it frequently takes place in one of the final scenes, where Freytag’s calamity is depicted.
C. Plot Elements of Freytag’s Pyramid
A remarkable achievement was made by Freytag, who authored the first significant analysis of story structure in contemporary times.
But because of his prominence, he also receives credit for several plot devices he didn’t create and never even used, such as rising action (he used the word rising movement), denouement (he used the term disaster), resolution (same), and more.
Since then, the phrases used to describe the typical story structure have gradually changed into something Freytag would not recognize. Even worse, despite the fact that they differ from Freytag’s original theories, the new concepts are nonetheless taught as “Freytag’s pyramid.”
Some of these differences—like the distinction between Freytag’s and contemporary definitions of “climax“—have significant significance despite the fact that many of them are minor.
Just consider how these terminologies have changed since Freytag for the time being.
D. Freytag Used a Five-Act Structure, While Modern Writers Use a Three-Act Structure
The Roman playwright Horace said in the first century B.C., “Let a play which would be sought about, and though seen, represented anew, be neither shorter nor longer than the fifth act.”
The five-act structure became the norm during the enlightenment as authors and thinkers like Freytag dug up this antiquated Roman literature.
The issue is that the five-act dramatic structure, at least as Freytag recommends it, simply doesn’t make much sense (with essentially three tiny acts and two giant acts).
More information regarding Freytag’s five-act dramatic structure and reasons not to adopt it may be found here. A three-act framework is a much better option for the majority of writers.
In his Poetics treatise, the Greek philosopher Aristotle even seems to support a three-act framework. He offers the first-ever advice on tale form by stating that a story should have a beginning, middle, and finish. Although it’s not exactly a profound realization, it’s still better than nothing!
5. How to Use this Dramatic Structure in Your Writing
A distinctive dramatic framework, like Freytag’s pyramid, has the advantage of being built to make stories compelling.
Following Freytag’s pyramid when writing ensures that readers will comprehend each scene’s function in relation to its location in the plot (e.g. to escalate the stakes, or push the character toward catastrophe).
Stories that were written with Freytag in mind tend to have tragic ends that are meaningful and profound rather than just sad.
The idea that each scene in your book must be on one side of the pyramid—where your characters are either pushing the envelope to the point of no return or suffering the consequences and probably making things worse—is also beneficial.
This can assist you in balancing your story.
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Although this is a particular structural model, fiction writers can utilize it in a variety of situations. If you have a likable character in mind, the notion of the core reversal, a climb, and a fall may truly deliver an emotional hit to a narrative.
Even Lady Macbeth, who effectively persuades her husband to commit regicide, acts out of unrequited love for him. Even though it is terrible, we can kind of understand it, and it is satisfying to watch the story come to a satisfying conclusion.
The basic human pattern of want and denial, as well as what occurs when you lose yourself in the pursuit of an impractical or incorrect goal, may all be explored through this pyramidal framework.