Narrative Structure: A Guide to Freytag’s Pyramid
If you’re a fiction editor, understanding narrative structure can help you assess your client’s work. One of the more common ways of conceptualizing narrative structure is Freytag’s Pyramid, which we will look at in today’s post. Read on to find out more about Freytag’s Pyramid and how to use it when editing.
What is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid is a type of framework used to understand how a story unfolds. It’s one of the oldest narrative structures and is still used by many authors today. This concept was first developed in the 1860s by German playwright and author Gustav Freytag.
Freytag suggested that a good story is made up of two parts, with a climax in the middle. The two halves can be visualized as a triangle or pyramid, with the climax being the highest point. The story is then divided further into five distinct parts:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Denouement or catastrophe
While our understanding of Freytag’s Pyramid has changed over time to fit new forms of media such as film and TV, these five parts are still key. Let’s take a look at each of them in more detail.
Freytag suggested that the introduction must include two elements:
- Exposition: This sets the scene for the story, which can include introducing the characters and backstory, exploring aspects of worldbuilding, and establishing the novel’s tone. It should be informative, but not too dense.
- Exciting force: Also known as the “complication,” this is an event, character, or other catalyst that spurs the protagonist into action. It serves a similar purpose as the “call to action” in the Hero’s Journey.
Your client’s introduction, exposition, and exciting force should all be compelling enough to hook the reader. You might also want to use the information provided in the exposition to fact check the rest of your client’s work and make sure certain details remain consistent.
2. Rising Action
Now that the exciting force has occurred, the pace of the story should pick up. The rising action is usually the longest part of the novel. Here, your client should:
- Establish a larger cast of characters
- Develop the protagonist and antagonist’s motivations
- Build mystery, suspense, or a sense of threat
- Introduce obstacles that must be overcome
The rising action should also hint at the climax that is approaching and drive the characters toward it. If your client’s work doesn’t seem to be picking up the pace or moving forward here, then you should flag it as an issue.
Freytag wrote that the climax is the most important part of the structure. Everything that happens in the story before should build toward it, and everything that follows should be informed by it.
It’s usually a moment of change, where everything that took place during the rising action comes to a peak. In a tragedy, for example, this is where things start to fall apart; in a comedy, events take a turn for the better.
Crucially, though, the climax of the Pyramid is not the end of the story. At this point, your client’s writing should leave readers unsure of what will happen next, but aware that there’s more to come.
4. Falling Action
Next is the falling action, which should mirror the events of the rising action in some way while hinting at the resolution still to come. The protagonist will have experienced some sort of transformation after the climax, whether positive or negative, and the falling action is the time to explore that. This means that the story should start to slow down again at this stage.
If your client has introduced more characters or increased the action immediately following the climax, you might want to address this and suggest that they adjust the pace. Similarly, if the climax leads too easily to a resolution, you could suggest that your client include a last obstacle or final plot twist for the protagonist to overcome.
5. Denouement or Catastrophe
In this final stage, the story reaches its conclusion in the form of a resolution. Ideally, the denouement should:
- Explore the consequences of the story’s events and any lessons to be learned
- Solve any conflicts established in the introduction
- Create a sense of closure
The denouement might also involve another section of exposition, this time explaining the ultimate fate of the protagonist and other characters. Make sure your client has tied up any loose threads here and hasn’t left any conflict unresolved – unless, of course, they’re planning a sequel.
It’s also important to remember that the resolution doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy one. If your client’s story has been following the course of a tragedy up to this point, but then suddenly finishes with an unrealistically happy ending, you may want to bring it up as an issue. This is why this stage is also known as the “catastrophe,” as we’ll see in the example below.
Example of Freytag’s Pyramid
To help you understand how to apply Freytag’s Pyramid to a piece of writing, we’ve divided Shirley Jackson’s gothic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House into the Pyramid’s five stages.
- Introduction: The protagonist, a shy young woman named Eleanor Vance, is introduced. Through the exposition, we learn that she experienced paranormal events as a child. After the death of her overbearing mother, she is now living with her sister and her sister’s husband, who both treat her poorly. The inciting incident occurs when she receives a letter from Dr. Montague, a paranormal investigator, who invites her to stay with him at a haunted mansion called Hill House.
- Rising action: Eleanor steals her sister’s car and drive to Hill House. There she meets Theodora, another young woman invited to stay at the house, and becomes close with her. She also meets Dr. Montague and Luke Sanderson, the house’s heir. At first the four of them get along well, but they soon begin to experience increasingly strange events. Eleanor in particular seems to witness more of these than the others.
- Climax: The four characters discover writing on a wall that reads “Help Eleanor, come home.” They accuse Eleanor of writing it, which causes her to distrust the rest of the group and isolate herself from them.
- Falling action: Eleanor starts to think of the house as her only friend and appears to fall under its control. The rest of the group grow concerned for her, and eventually, Dr. Montague decides that she should leave. They pack her car and say their goodbyes.
- Denouement or catastrophe: The resolution occurs when Eleanor, determined not to leave Hill House, crashes her car in the grounds and is killed. We’re told how the rest of the characters continue on with their lives, while Hill House remains “not sane.”
Not every story will match the Pyramid’s structure beat for beat. But if you’re editing a piece of creative writing, knowing which narrative elements to look out for can help you identify when something important is missing or out of place.
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