Freytag’s Pyramid


Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common devices for mapping a literary progression, and it’s one of those with the most academic force behind it. The reasoning behind this is, as with most things, complex and cultural, but the technique nonetheless has a good deal to teach us and a good deal to talk about. I mentioned it in passing in a recent review, and it bears expanding on from a more editorial perspective.

In brief, Freytag’s Pyramid is, in the original, an analysis of dramatic structure that concludes that a play is most rightly performed in five acts, popularly referred to as Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Dénouement. (Note that Exposition in this context doesn’t mean precisely what it does generally – in this context, it’s being used to refer to the relation of the specific events leading up to this point in the story and setting-up of the tale itself.) This falls into a much, much larger argument regarding drama and the writing thereof, and that discussion, like the playwright’s art in general, is not something that I pretend to be sufficiently versed in to speak to with any sort of specificity.

Freytags Pyramid

However, this structure has been applied, partly for simplicity’s sake and partly out of an ignorance of the original ideas, to storytelling broadly, with some going as far as to say that all fiction whatsoever must include all 5 sections or be declassified (to what I’ve never been told). This was far more true a century or two ago than it is now, a time when adherence to the dramatic tradition was far more prevalent and during which quietude and languidity had a great deal more value, in large part due to the relative dearth of entertainment available in absence of electronic delights.

In our enlightened modern era, however, we have seen a few alterations to this concept, alterations which some have chosen to bludgeon with the dual truncheons of ignorance and arrogance in an Oh, the square peg doesn’t fit in the round hole? What about the square peg? sort of way until it begins to grunt awkwardly into a structure which was largely descriptivist in the original and which had only the barest hints of prescriptionist recommendation, now amplified by that peculiar sort of person who so desperately needs outside direction that they will invent it from whole cloth.

The most frequent alterations that we see made, and in my mind the most advisable, are the combination of Exposition and Rising Action, and the omission or drastic reduction of Falling Action and Dénouement.

This former I can’t put a particular pin in in terms of who did it first. I would place it gently in the late 19th or early 20th centuries in terms of its widespread adoption, and if you have something firmer please do let me know in the comments, but the history of it matters very little for our purposes. I’m going to cover this method in more detail later, but the simplest point to be gained from it is this: When you need things to get started quickly in order to set the pace you intend to keep up throughout, the portion of the story normally reserved for getting people up to speed on what’s actually happening can be done on the fly as tension begins to build. This can be challenging, but the key is to remember that the plot to this point and the challenge the heroes face is something your characters experience in every moment. When you need to give us something about it, you have a ready-made example of it surrounding your characters, and the need to step aside of the path and explain can frequently be routed around.

The latter is far easier to place in history, coming from the venerable Edgar Allen Poe, inventor of fear and bringer of joy to all the good little girls and boys. It was originally known as Unity of Effect, and the strictest use of it is still known that way. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite techniques, and even when used in the gentler, softer, less (let’s face it) ballsy fashion that we see in a great deal of fiction, it has a great deal to offer. This, too, will receive its own article, but here, too, there is a short version that’s worth keeping in mind as you consider these alterations to the traditional structure. The key to Unity of Effect specifically or reductions in Dénouement or especially Falling Action generally is knowing where and how to cut things off. If you simply stop at the height of the book, we feel unfulfilled. It’s crucial, absolutely crucial, that you actually fulfill the reader’s experience, pay off all your debts, and then end on a high note.

So! That covers the two most common alterations that are made successfully in Freytag’s Pyramid, and a little bit on how to do them yourselves. What other experiments have you found fruitful in rethinking the traditional narrative structure? What have you seen done that seems to be forming a trend (good or bad)?

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