Most stories, especially ones with subplots, could become very complex in terms of composition. But whether it is a short story or a great novel, all of these stories follow a particular dramatic structure.
This is Freytag’s Pyramid.
In this article, we’ll talk about this famous story structure and how it can make your storytelling even better.
What is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the oldest known dramatic structures. It was invented by a German playwright and novelist named Gustav Freytag, who wrote Die Technik des Dramas (Technique Of The Drama), a definitive study about the dramatic structure.
This structure is now known as the Freytag’s Pyramid (sometimes also known as the Freytag’s Triangle). This structure is used by many writers, playwrights, and dramatists. It’s also one of the most commonly taught dramatic structures in the world.
The 7-Step Freytag’s Pyramid Order
Freytag’s Pyramid (aka Freytag’s Triangle) is a 7-part story structure with these steps:
- Inciting incident
- Rising action
- Falling action
Here is what each of these story beats mean:
The first step in Freytag’s Triangle is the exposition, which introduces the story.
The writer should lay out the characters, setting, and other background information. Most of the time, the protagonist is introduced first and some other characters. The time and place of the setting are also mentioned.
Often the exposition tees up the original setting or ‘normal world’. In other words, what does status quo look like for the hero/protagonist and the other characters?
It’s important to keep the exposition short. Even some popular books such as Ready Player One struggle with the criticism of “too much exposition”.
2. Inciting incident
The inciting incident is the second if not the most important event in the story. Although most of us believe the climax is the most critical part, the inciting incident triggers the chain of events in the story.
Basically, there will be no climax if not for the inciting incident.
This incident often challenges or disrupts the status quo, which forces or invites the protagonist to go through a mental, emotional, and physical journey. Thus, unfolding the story.
3. Rising action
The rising action builds up the events of the story. It involves a series of events in which the protagonist grows towards the turning point. It often consists of a complication, which means the problem the character tries to solve gets more complicated.
These events could be challenges, revelations, and meetings. They form the development in the story.
The climax is also known as the turning point of the story. It is where the highest tension between the protagonist and antagonist happens.
This event doesn’t always involve significant events like a battle between armies. It can also be subtle, like an inward realization or point of reflection by the protagonist. That realization influences the protagonist’s decision making for the rest of the story or forces them to draw on hidden inner strengths.
As Freytag puts it, “This middle, the climax of the play, is the most important place of the structure; the action rises to this; the action falls away from this.”
5. Falling action
The falling action is the part where the story shifts as a result of the climax. It may involve a change in the protagonist’s behavior, as well as more challenges, conflicts, and meetings, affecting the protagonist even further.
This doesn’t mean the ending is definite yet. There will often be some suspense about whether the protagonist will overcome the challenges or not.
This part shows the resolution or the settlement of the conflict. The protagonist overcomes (or fails!) all the challenges and resolves the main plot. The resolution can be intertwined with the denouement.
‘Denouement’ is a French word that means “to untie.” This part brings the story to an end. There’s a new status quo, with the protagonist being changed (or deceased).
The conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a release of tension and anxiety for the reader.
Just like the meaning of denouement itself, this part unravels or unties the complexities of the story.
Freytag’s Pyramid Example in a Story
Here is an example of how Freytag’s pyramid is used in a story to help you get a better understanding of the structure:
Mr. Reed and the Students at St. Louis
Mr. Reed teaches English at St. Louis School. This school has many great students, and they have such good parents and caretakers. All the teachers love working at St. Louis, but Mr. Reed loves to teach there the most.
One day, a law called “The No Child Left Behind Act” was passed. Now, the teachers and students at St. Louis have to get their test scores up. Otherwise, the school might get shut down. Mr. Reed tries to teach English to all of the students. He gives his best during lessons. However, some students didn’t want to learn English because they say that English is dull and stupid. It ruined Mr. Reed’s teachings with their poor behavior.
Mr. Reed goes home upset and doesn’t know what to do. He’s finding it hard to teach his lessons. If Mr. Reed can’t teach the students what they should know, they will never know the correct answers to the tests. He almost quits his job and goes unemployed, but he decides to call his mother to talk about his problem.
While calling his mother for help, Mr. Reed has a great idea. He started calling the parents and caretakers of the misbehaving students. Once Mr. Reed starts calling the parents and caretakers at their jobs, the parents and caretakers go home and ensure that their students don’t misbehave in Mr. Reed’s classroom. All of a sudden, the students started listening to everything Mr. Reed says. He was then able to teache one successful lesson after the other.
On the day of the test, everyone was worried, but the students have learned well. The results came back, and the students scored excellently. St. Louis is now one of the best schools in the city and continues to serve the community.
- Exposition: During the exposition, we are introduced to our main character (Mr. Reed), the setting (St. Louis School, present-day), and the supporting characters (the teachers, students, parents, and caretakers, and the President).
- Inciting incident: It occurs when the legislation of “The No Child Left Behind Act” was passed. It forces the teachers and students to either get their test scores up or close the school.
- Rising Action: The action rises when the students that didn’t want to learn English and begin sabotaging Mr. Reed’s lessons and plans. Things get worse until Mr. Reed is about to quit his job.
- Climax: The climax happens when Mr. Reed called his mother and gets the idea to contact the student’s parents and caretakers. This event served as the turning point in the story because things got better for our primary and supporting characters (Mr. Reed and his students).
- Falling Action: Mr. Reed begins teaching lessons successfully, and the students start learning. There is a final suspenseful moment when the students take the test.
- Denouement: The students pass the test. St. Louis continues to be a great school. Everyone is happy
Why did Freytag shape it like a pyramid?
The steps seen in the story arc structure represent different stages of tension or conflict. The same way, Freytag decided to shape it like a pyramid to show that – in every story – the tension has to:
- climb up
- reach the peak
- fall back down
Why is Freytag’s pyramid structure important?
Many people like to say that the 7-step structure is too conventional, and writers who follow a non-chronological order (like Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) can successfully write unpredictable stories.
However, it’s worth mentioning that despite not following a chronological order, unpredictable stories like theirs must still follow the logic behind the infamous 7-step structure, which is the principle behind Freytag’s pyramid.
Here is an example of a story with an awful structure:
- Scene 1: the protagonist fights the antagonist.
- Scene 2: the protagonist, in his deathbed, ponders and regrets losing his life over a meaningless fight was as well as the reason behind it.
- Scene 3: A flashback to the fight starts, and you saw the antagonist has left a fatal wound on the protagonist by cheating.
Do you think you’ll be invested in this kind of story? Don’t you think it’s a little confusing when you’ve seen the result of the fight first before seeing what actually happened?
It’s like jumping from the rising action to the falling action and back to the climax.
The point here is, stories need to be organized in a specific way for it to be comprehensible by the audience.
Tarantino and Nolan movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento are not confusing even though they are not organized chronologically. It’s because the audience is presented with all the information needed to understand the events of the story. And all information is laid out at the right time and not in random order.
Here’s a great video from Videomaker about using Freytag’s Pyramid in filmmaking. Keep in mind that this structure can be used in both fiction and non-fiction stories such as documentaries:
How to write stories using Freytag’s Pyramid
Freytag’s Pyramid is a perfect guide for writers and for beginners in writing. But before you begin with your story, here are a few tips that could help you organize your ideas to suit Freytag’s pyramid:
- Write an outline of events
- Plot these events to the steps on the pyramid
- Focus on one event and add more essential details. You can do this in bullet points.
- You can make several rising points if you’re writing a novel, but make sure to have only one climax and resolution.
- Raise the stakes in your plot to make the story more interesting
Before you start, outline these 3 things (to prepare for using Freytag’s Pyramid structure)
- The inciting incident: it must affect the protagonist strongly and leave him/her with no choice but to act on it and resolve.
- Conflict(s) the protagonist faces: these conflicts can be internal, external, or both. It should drive the narrative.
- Resolution of the inciting incident: the protagonist must overcome conflict(s) and be permanently changed in the end.
9 ways to raise the stakes in your plot:
- Add secondary characters who bring new tensions to the story
- Present physical danger
- Give a character a complicated history or situation
- Introduce new problems
- Create obstacles for your hero
- Find ways to keep your protagonist moving from one location to another
- Create obstacles for your hero
- Add time pressure, like a ticking bomb
- Remind the reader of the stakes
There are plenty of story structures out there, and many of them are variations of the classic three-act structure.
Freytag’s Pyramid is a logical structure to follow as long as you have developed well-rounded and interesting characters. Don’t let a story structure distract you or box you into a template. Instead, use it to speed up your process and inform your narrative.
I hope this was helpful to you. Good luck with your writing!