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).

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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.

Narrative Structure: The Three-Act Structure

Perhaps one of the more popular narrative structures, the Three-Act Structure is a solid choice when plotting out your novel. As mentioned in my last post about the seven types of narrative structure, the website Helping Writers Become Authors (from K.M. Weiland) has a fantastic, in-depth series on the Three-Act Structure.

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Why should you care about story structure? It’s one of the parts of a story that is most often overlooked by writers. Many writers believe that by utilizing narrative structure, they’ll sap the beauty and art of writing right out of their work. That, or they think using narrative structure is too complicated to bother with. I beg to differ. By applying narrative structure to your story, you help bring readers along in your story. Our brains automatically know when certain plot points are supposed to happen. That’s part of the magic of movies: We inherently know when an exciting bit of action is supposed to happen based on its narrative structure. Narrative structure is intuitive.

Back to our Three-Act Structure. It is, as its name suggests, made up of three separate acts. Act I makes up the first 25% of your story. Act II makes up the middle, or 50%, of your story. Act III makes up the last 25% of your story.

Act I

Act I is comprised of a few parts, including the Hook, Inciting Event, and Key Event.

The Hook is just that—it’s the thing that draws your readers in, makes them want to find out what happens to the protagonist. Essentially, when broken down into its most basic form, the Hook is a question: What’s going to happen? It should also be boiled down to a more specific question, such as: What assignment will Jonas receive at the Ceremony of Twelves? (The Giver by Lois Lowry.) Your hook should be specific and easily posed as a question. It should be inherent to the plot, but doesn’t necessarily need to contain action.

The Inciting Event (click for my post about the Inciting Event) is that major event in your protagonist’s life that changes it forever. They can’t go back from this point. It is the moment when your story officially begins.

The Key Event can be, and sometimes is, the same as the Inciting Event, but it can be separate. Think of the Inciting Event as the moment when your story begins, and the Key Event as the moment that defines what the story is about. This is the moment when your protagonist is engaged with the Inciting Event.

Act II

Act II begins, and Act I ends, with The First Plot Point. Act II is the biggest chunk in your story, made up of highs and lows, and growing action. It is also comprised of the Midpoint, which is the very middle plot point at the 50% mark, and two Pinch Points (note: you can have more than two Pinch Points). K.M. Weiland’s series on this structure breaks down Act II into two separate parts — the First Half of the Second Act and the Second Half of the Second Act, divided by the Midpoint.

The First Plot Point marks the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. It is generally found at the 25% point of your story, and it’s another event that your protagonist can’t come back from. As Weiland puts it, this event isn’t just happening to your protagonist. He reacts to it in an irrevocable way. In my current WIP that’s with beta readers, The Sound of Snap Dragons, Kylie is attacked by a serial killer, which sets her on her hunt to find justice. It’s the character’s reaction that truly begins the first half of Act II.

Pinch Point #1 is a reminder that the antagonist is out there, flexing his biceps. Whether the protagonist attempts to confront the antagonist in some way, or the protagonist falls trap to something, it’s a reminder that our hero isn’t infallible. The first pinch point may reveal certain clues to the mystery, as well. This plot point can happen anywhere in the first half of the second act.

The Midpoint happens at exactly that —the very middle point of your book. Say your manuscript is 100,000 words; the Midpoint should happen at almost exactly 50,000 words into your story, give or take a thousands words or so. By delaying the midpoint, your readers may feel like the story is dragging. It is the centerpiece of your story; it’s the turning point from reaction to action on the protagonist’s part. This is a major plot point in your story, so make sure it doesn’t fall flat.

Pinch Point #2 is the second flex from the antagonist. It’s another blow to the protagonist’s journey, yet it should reveal new information. Again, this can happen anywhere in the second half of Act II.

Act III

Like the previous two acts, Act III should open with a bang, as Weiland puts it. It opens with the Third Plot Point, which should be major in the protagonist’s life and journey. It’s the point of no turning back for our hero, and his back is against a wall. Act III is comprised of the Third Plot Point, the Climax, and Resolution. Unlike our other acts, it’s a bit more flexible in its placement: It can be as early as 70% or as late as 75% in your story.

The Third Plot Point opens Act III in a pivotal moment. It places our protagonist on his last road to the Climax, and all your dominoes should be lined up for the Climax. This point may be utter upheaval for our hero, and may throw his life into total chaos. As Weiland gives, a great example is It’s a Wonderful Life: the third act opens with the appearance of the angel Clarence, who grants George Bailey his wish of never being born.

The Climax is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the moment when our hero battles evil, takes it head-on. Depending on whether your story is a comedy or a tragedy, your hero should either win the battle or lose it. It should have your readers on the edge of their seats. If you’ve built up your story correctly, your readers should have an idea of what’s to come (unless, of course, you throw in some sort of plot twist). It should occur near the very end of Act III.

The Resolution is only a few pages long, maybe one or two scenes, in which all the loose ends are tied up. It should give your readers closure in some way, even if you plan on writing a series. Here, we see how the climax has affected our protagonist’s life, whether he won or lost the battle.

And that’s the end of the Three-Act Structure. To sum up, it’s comprised of three acts, which are also made up of specific plot points. It’s one of the more popular narrative structures for writing novels, but bear in mind that it’s not the only one. Check back soon for my next post on our next narrative structure: Freytag’s Pyramid!

The 7 Types of Narrative Structure

Did you know there are seven, seven, types of narrative structure? From the Three-Act Structure to the Seven-Point Structure, you have a few to choose from when writing your stories. Today, I will be giving you a brief overview of each narrative structure, and be prepared for future posts solely on each story type of narrative structure.

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What exactly is narrative structure? Essentially, it’s a blueprint to follow when outlining your story structure, telling you where to plot certain points in the narrative. It’s the particular order in which narrative is presented in a story, but it’s also made up of narrative elements that drive the action, such as character, conflict, setting, etc. Remember that your plot is driven by a lot of varying factors, so you can think of a novel as one giant spider’s web, all interwoven and connected. Every element should make sense within your story, and every plot point should have a purpose.

Basic story structure goes as follows:
1. Normal life/Status Quo
Your character is going along, going about his everyday business. Everything is hunky dory (or maybe not so hunky dory, depending on your character’s background, like in The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, where Cormoran Strike is sleeping in his office, has broken up with his intermittent girlfriend, and all around down and out with very few jobs as a private detective). You can make this as short or (sort of) long as you want.

2. The Inciting Event/Incident
This is the event that brings your protagonist’s normal life to a total and utter halt. He cannot come back from his event, and his life is about to change forever, whether for the better or for the worse. This should point your protagonist in the direction his ultimate goal, if not at least begin to lead him in that direction.

3. Rising Action
Your protagonist is pursuing their goal, hindered by the obstacles you put in his way, and each time he gets a little closer.

4. Climax/All-Is-Lost
This is the big moment in your story that you’ve been building up to. It’s the final showdown, a battle of wits. There is also most likely a moment when your protagonist thinks he has lost it all, that the battle is lost, and he’s about to give up.

5. Resolution
Here, your character has either a) won the battle, victory! or b) lost the battle or c) lost the battle, but realized they have something more important.

These are the most common “beats” in a story structure. When you dive into the different types of narrative structure, you’ll find that the placement and types of beats within a story structure will vary.

There are seven varying forms of narrative structure. Below, you’ll find a brief description of each one.

  1. Three-Act Structure
    This structure splits your story into three acts: First Act(25%), Second Act(50%), Third Act(25%). The first act makes up the beginning quarter of your story; the second act makes up the entire middle of your story, or 50% of your overall story (give or take); and finally, the third act makes up the ending 25% of your story. Act one is your status quo/normal life and inciting event, and ends with the first plot point. The first plot point then leads into the second act, which includes your rising action and a midpoint. The third plot point leads into the third act, which includes your climax and resolution. For a great series on the Three-Act Structure, check out helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.
  2. Freytag’s Pyramid
    This is essentially what it sounds like: picture your story like a pyramid of rising and falling action, with your climax at the very peak. While this structure is named after a 19th-century German novelist, it’s actually based on the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. It’s one of the more basic structures, including an introduction, rising action, climax, the fall, and a disastrous catastrophe. (It wouldn’t be a tragedy without a catastrophic ending, would it? Think the ending of the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors — everyone is eaten by the blood-thirsty plant, Audrey II.)
  3. The Hero’s Journey
    The Hero’s Journey has quite a few more plot points than some of the other narrative structures, but it falls similarly to the Three-Act Structure. The basic plot points are as follows:
    The Ordinary World. Your status quo, your protagonist is going about his daily life.
    The Call to Adventure. Think of this as your inciting incident.
    Refusal of the Call. Our hero doesn’t want to take on the journey.
    Meeting the Mentor. The protagonist meets the person who will teach them or prepare them somehow.
    Crossing the Threshold. Our hero steps out of his comfort zone.
    Tests, Allies, Enemies. Think of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi, and the droids pick up Han Solo and Chewbacca for passage to Alderaan.
    Approach to the Inmost Cave. Our hero is nearing whatever it is he wants; he nears his goal.
    The Ordeal. Our hero meets and beats his greatest challenge yet.
    Reward/Seizing the Sword. Our hero gains or obtains something they were after, and victory is in sight.
    The Road Back. Things are going backwards for our hero, and he realizes that seizing the sword might have made things harder for him.
    Resurrection. Our hero faces his ultimate challenge or battle, and the climax of the story rests upon everything the hero has learned over their journey. (Like Luke using the Force to fire at a 2-meter wide shot that he must make.)
    Return with the Elixir. Our hero returns to his normal life (or as normal as it can be).
  4. The Story Circle
    This is actually a narrative structure created by Rick and Morty co-creator, Dan Harmon. It is inspired by The Hero’s Journey, but instead of abstract beats, it simply makes the writer think about the character’s wants and needs by instead using beats like: Protagonist is in a Zone of Comfort, They Want Something, They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation, Adapt to It, Gets What They Wanted, Pay a Heavy Price, They Return to Their Familiar Situation, They Have Changed (whether for better or for worse).
  5. Fichtean Curve
    This narrative structure is fleshed out in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It puts your protagonist through a series of crises and obstacles on his rising way to the climax. It bypasses the “ordinary world” or status quo of structures like the Three-Act Structure, and it begs for the protagonist to continue having to overcome obstacles in order to keep the tension of the story, therefore keeping the reader engaged to the very end.
  6. Save the Cat
    Similar to the Three-Act Structure, this narrative structure was created by screenwriter Blake Snyder, and it tends to remain a popular choice. It’s made up of 15 plot points, all in a certain order. Each “beat” is numbered by page, assuming you were writing a 110-page screenplay.
  7. Seven-Point Story Structure
    Similar to the Hero’s Journey, the Seven-Point Story focuses on the highs and lows of a narrative. It includes major plot points and beats called “pinch points” — basically, when something goes wrong for your protagonist.

Bear in mind that narrative structures aren’t an exact science, especially when writing a novel. They can be great tools in outlining your novel, knowing when and where to place your plot points.

Writing a Novel: The First Steps

Maybe the thought of writing an entire novel is daunting for you. Maybe you want to write one but don’t have an idea. Or perhaps you have an idea but don’t know where to start. Either way, I know how it is. When I wrote my first book that wasn’t garbage, I didn’t really know where to start. The first first book, the one that was garbage, I wrote by the seat of my pants the entire way, with no planning, no forethought, no nothing. It ended up with no real structured plot, no real goals, no motivations. That’s why I believe in the power of at least a little planning and plotting beforehand, even if you consider yourself a pantser. Just a little forethought can really go a long way in the quality of your novel.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to plot out every little detail of your novel, especially if you enjoy writing by the seat of your pants and seeing where the story and its characters take you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But knowing what your characters’ wants and goals are before you start writing can help you get to your ending a little more quickly — not to mention a little more neatly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of explorative writing, but that’s mostly to learn about my characters and who they are — not as a way to write a novel.

But there is something to be said about writing by the seat of your pants. No matter what gets you writing, be sure to write. You can’t edit a blank page. So whatever gets your fingers to that keyboard (or pen to paper), go for it.

Below are just a few of my own tips that I’ve learned over the years in my writing journey on how to start your novel.

  1. Start with a spark of an idea.
    It can be even a tiny glimpse of a scene, of a character, of a problem. I say spark of an idea, because it doesn’t have to be an entire idea for a novel. It can be just a tiny piece of the puzzle, and that’s what you’ll build your novel around. Prompts can be useful if you’re stuck for sparks, and you can find a ton of prompts on various writing websites.
  2. From that spark, figure out a loose plot.
    This is where character goals and motivations come in handy. By knowing what your character wants, you can throw obstacles in their way to keep them from reaching that ultimate goal. What will happen if your protagonist fails to reach their goal? What do they stand to lose? Essentially, that’s all plot is: the events that happen in a story that keep your character from gaining what they want. Granted, a novel is typically more ornate and intricate than just a bunch of plot points. But learning plot structure can help you mold your story, such as the Three-Act Structure (K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors has a great series on this). By learning plot structure, you can predetermine where the major plot points of your story will go, and this can help you determine what plot points need to happen in your story. There’s a reason pre-determined plot structures, like the Three-Act Structure, are so popular; it’s the natural points, the inherent ebb and flow, in a story when audiences expect something major to happen.
  3. Get to writing! (And don’t worry about being perfect.)
    Whether you’re prone to plotting or pantsing, you should have at least an idea of what your characters want, what their goals are, and a loose plot structure. Like I quoted before, you can’t edit a blank page. Don’t worry about finding that perfect word or perfect phrase during your first draft. You can edit that later. Just write.
  4. Edit, rewrite, and rewrite.
    If there’s one big mistake I made on that first “novel”, it’s that I didn’t take the time to edit it. I didn’t go through it to make sure it adhered to proper plot structure of some sort; the characters had vague motivations and goals. In other words? It was a hot mess. Make sure you reread your story, check it for cohesiveness, for good flow. Find beta readers and get feedback. Be a nitpick, but remember that you can’t edit forever.

These are just some beginning steps to writing a novel. I want to be clear that it can be much more detailed and involved than just stringing some words together. Carefully think out your novel. Think of how you could sum up your novel and what it conveys in just a sentence or two.

As a reminder, I’m looking for writers, authors, and bloggers to interview on my new podcast (available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts!), so if you’re interested in being featured, email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com or comment on any post on my blog! I’m also now on Twitter and looking for mutual follows, so follow me @SkylarWwrites.