Narrative Structure: Freytag’s Pyramid

Welcome to post #3 in my Narrative Structure Series! Today, we’ll be discussing Freytag’s Pyramid, which was devised by 19th-century German playwright Gustav Freytag (which, technically, he based on Aristotle’s idea of narrative structure as a triangle with exposition, climax, and resolution, mapped out in Poetics).

Photo by Andre Moura from Pexels

As a reminder, narrative structure is a literary element that functions as structural framework for a story. For a more detailed description of narrative structure, visit my blog post, The 7 Types of Narrative Structure.

As you probably already guessed, the main idea of Freytag’s Pyramid is that the story is a pyramid, with the climax at its highest point. We can break it down into six parts, including the exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

  1. Exposition
    In Freytag’s Pyramid, the story begins with Exposition, in which a reader is introduced to the setting, the characters, etc. Your sole focus during the Exposition is to build the world in which the story will be set — and where most of the major action happens. How long your exposition lasts depends on the complexity of your world building, as well as the complexity of the story’s conflict. For example, The Lord of the Rings is full of exposition. Lois Lowry’s The Giver has some exposition in which we get to know the “utopia” that is Jonas’ world.
  2. Inciting Incident
    The exposition should end with the Inciting Incident (sometimes called the Inciting Event). For a more thorough explanation of what the Inciting Incident/Event is, see my post, The Inciting Event. Basically, it is the moment in your character’s life that sets the story in motion, the moment which he cannot come back from.
  3. Rising Action
    The Rising Action will make up the biggest chunk of your story, and it is rife with conflict that builds up to the climax. You’ll often see things getting worse for our protagonist, and it’s all about moves and countermoves. If we were to compare it to the Three-Act Structure, the Rising Action would be Act II of your story. It should include key information about your character’s motives and history, and any themes that are being explored. Also, you can foreshadow the main event: the Climax.
  4. Climax
    The pièce de résistance of your story. Here is where the conflict can no longer hold onto the tension its been grasping, and everything comes crashing down on your protagonist’s head. It’s the major turning point in which the central conflict is addressed. Now, whether the climax lasts one scene or spans several chapters is up to you. It should culminate from the rising action you’ve created, and it should resonate with the story’s themes.
  5. Falling Action
    Here is where we can explore the aftermath of the Climax. How do your characters react to what happened in the Climax? Here, loose ends should be tied up. Think of it as your protagonist’s “new normal” compared to the exposition. Bear in mind that the Falling Action should still engage the reader in some way.
  6. Resolution
    Here is the end of your story, and figuring out where the narrative ends can be tricky. Falling Action and the Resolution tend to be fairly short. Here is where you’ll also decide what happens to your protagonist. Does he die? Does he learn from his mistakes? Does he accept his pain and loss and move on with his life? Perhaps he begins anew? Either way, everything should be tied up in a neat little package, even if you’re leaving the ending open for a sequel.

That’s it for Freytag’s Pyramid. Curious about other forms of narrative structure? Check out my posts, The 7 Types of Narrative Structure and Narrative Structure: The Three-Act Structure. And if you’re looking for an editor, don’t forget that I’m now offering editing services, including copy editing, proofreading, and manuscript critiques! Check out my Services page for pricing and more information.

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