Builders have blueprints to ensure the safe construction of homes, offices, or any other building they are raising. Chefs have recipes to ensure consumers’ taste buds dance with joy! And fiction writers have Freytag’s Pyramid to ensure their stories have a clear dramatic structure and leave the readers completely satisfied.
Even if you haven’t heard of Freytag, I suspect you know more about him than you realize. If you’ve watched a movie, TV show or series, or have read a novel or short story, you’ve seen that pyramid in action.
Freytag’s Pyramid is a staple of reading, literature, and creative writing classes. If you’re a fiction writer or reader, familiarity with this structural device is worth your time.
Need a refresher? You’re in the right place!
What Is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid is a map that highlights dramatic structure—the order of event in which the plot of a story unfolds.
This concept was developed by Gustav Freytag, who was a German novelist, critic, and lecturer in the 19th century. Though he was one of Germany’s most famous writers during his lifetime, he is most remembered for his Pyramid.
Freytag built his concept on the core elements of Aristotle’s theory. Know as Aristotle’s Poetics, this theory states that a plot structure must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Think about the last movie or TV show you watched. I’d be willing to bet you can find a beginning, middle, and end in all of them. You weren’t shown a random collection of unrelated events, but a series of events that followed a logical pattern, ultimately leading to an ultimate point.
Freytag maintained the essence of Aristotle’s theory, but then made some adjustments in his pyramid. Over time, other adjustments have also been made to the pyramid.
The Five Elements of Freytag’s Pyramid
In Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, Freytag divides plot into five parts:
The plot is driven by a conflict—the protagonist is on a quest to achieve something. The plot elements represent the different stages of that conflict.
Element 1: Introduction
The introduction is where the characters and the setting are first presented to us. Additionally, the author will include some background or “backstory” information on those characters or their relationship or situations.
Consider Cinderella, the Disney version. I’m willing to bet that you know the general storyline.
In the introduction of that story, we learn that Cinderella is a kind young woman who lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. She is forced to live alone up in their tower (attic, maybe?) and complete all of their undesirable household chores. Her loving father has died and the only friends she has are the little mice and birds who talk to her when none of the wicked family members are around.
Then, a key event happens at the end of that introduction! And Freytag named that something the exciting force.
This event is what propels the story into action. It marks a change and the start of the journey or conflict for the protagonist. Do you remember what that event is in Cinderella?
The invitation to the ball, of course! Now Cinderella begins her quest to attend the ball (dressed appropriately, of course).
Element 2: Rise
The rise is where “the plot thickens.” This is the phase in which the protagonist moves forward in their journey, facing possible setbacks and complications. It’s where the tension builds, the suspense sharpens, characters develop even more, and we—the readers—sit on the edge of our seats to see whether or not that protagonist will succeed!
Weren’t you a nervous wreck during Cinderella? All that dress material collection; all the messes made by the step-family to distract her; all that singing! Then, the worst setback, the destruction of the dress!
But, with the plot still on the rise, Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears and magically makes everything even better than all right. With one hitch in the plan: the magic will wear off at midnight.
We’re still not off the hook! The plot is still rising and will go through dances, more singing, a perfect night, the clock striking midnight, the glass slipper falling off, the prince running after Cinderella only to find that one shoe, Cinderella back in the tower, cleaning and singing away her sorrow, and dreaming of that magical ball with the prince.
OMG! How can we stand it? Will she ever get to be with the one guaranteed to be her true love (all that singing and dancing proves it’s love, right)? The prince is searching for the shoe-owner, but how will he ever find Cinderella while she’s stuck in the tower?
That’s what the climax is for.
Element 3: Climax
The climax is where the turn—for better or worse—comes for the protagonist. It is the moment that largely determines how the story ends.
For Cinderella, that turn comes when she’s actually able to get downstairs so the Grand Duke can see if the shoe fits. After dodging yet another complication (the stepmother trips the Duke and he drops and breaks the shoe... but Cinderella has the match!), Cinderella proves she is the girl of the Prince’s dreams and our jaws are on the floor!
Element 4: Fall
This is where the fallout happens—that little wordplay can help you remember what the fall is. The results of the climax occur here. Note that Freytag built his pyramid for the genres of realistic drama or tragedy. So for him, the fall would usually show a continued unraveling of the protagonist’s journey or quest.
While you may not think of Cinderella as a comedy, it is a story with a happy ending. It also has a really short fall. Cinderella goes right from that shoe-fitting to her wedding. We can imagine the unraveling of her wicked family’s household and the joy among her and her birds and mice as they prepared for her wedding, but we don’t actually see those events.
Element 5: Catastrophe
This point in the plot, essentially the end, is where the final failure occurs. Remember, Freytag was tragedy-focused. The protagonist’s journey ends with a final devastation. Think of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet, and just about everyone else, is dead; Romeo, Juliet, and some of their friends are dead; Othello kills himself.
See the trend? There’s major death, and then those stories end.
But Cinderella has a happy ending (although I suppose marrying someone simply because you had some cool singing and dancing sessions for a few hours could legitimately be called catastrophic), so what do we call her “happily ever after” ending?
Remember when I said there have been adjustments to Freytag’s Pyramid over time? One of those adjustments was to that catastrophic ending.
The Six Elements of a Plot vs. Freytag’s Pyramid
Freytag had five elements of plot. If you’ve discussed dramatic structure in school or writing classes, you’ve probably been instructed in six (or perhaps seven, depending on your instructor). This approach includes these elements:
Introduction, also called the Exposition
Inciting Action: this is included in Freytag’s Pyramid as part of the introduction called Exciting Force. In updated models, this event gets its own spot on the pyramid.
Rising Action, same function as Freytag’s Rise.
Climax, also called the Turning Point, and is the moment the reader/audience has been waiting for!
Falling Action, similar function to Freytag’s Fall, but includes space for non-tragic fallout.
Resolution, also called the Denouement by some. Others see these elements as separate parts, with the Denouement almost serving as an Epilogue. In the Resolution, the protagonist’s conflict is resolved, for better or for worse.
For Cinderella, her quest to be in the prince’s presence was resolved more positively than she had imagined. Her struggle to attend the ball led to her fairy-tale wedding.
The main differences between Freytag’s model and the six (or seven) point model are seen in the Climax, Catastrophe, and Resolution segments.
For Freytag, the Climax represented more of the turning point than “the moment we’ve all been waiting for” point. In fact, I’m thinking he might disagree with my interpretation of Cinderella’s climax and say it occurred at midnight, when Cinderella lost her slipper. That’s the event that “turns” the rest of the story.
Freytag’s focus was on tragedy. In his model, there would be a final catastrophic event (brought on by the climax) that determined the end for the protagonist. For example, in Othello, Freytag would likely see the murder of Desdemona as the climax, and Othello’s suicide as the Catastrophe.
For this post’s sake, let’s apply the catastrophe to Cinderella, with a twist. If the lost shoe was the climax, the shoe-fitting moment would be the “happy” catastrophe.
In Freytag’s Pyramid, the catastrophe is the devastating end of the protagonist’s conflict. In the six-point model, the protagonist’s conflict ends or is resolved in the resolution, happily or unhappily.
How Freytag’s Pyramid Can Help You
Let’s revisit those builders and chefs I referenced at the top of the post.
Imagine if builders made things up as they went along; they just “constructed on the fly.” You could still get your building, but you could wind up with anything from an unbalanced floor to faulty wiring to missing egresses—basically, just a poorly structured building.
For the chef without a recipe, the scenario is less dangerous, and of course, chefs certainly can make up dishes as they go along. But if they are making a specific dish, they at least need to follow its basic ingredients. (You can’t really have chicken parmigiana without chicken!)
Freytag’s Pyramid provides the structure of a builder’s blueprints (somewhat) or a chef’s recipe (a better match, I’ll explain soon) to the fiction writer. The dramatic structure serves as an outline for your story, helping you organize the progression of the conflict and character development.
A story without a sense of structure, without a shape, is like a dream—it doesn’t really make sense and it’s almost impossible to understand why any of the events are occurring.
The pyramid supplies the chicken, sauce, and cheese to start that parmigiana so that you can think more about secret ingredients and presentation.
Because Freytag’s Pyramid is such a ubiquitous dramatic structure, readers are ready for it, even if they don’t consciously realize it. His format of plot progression is one that readers (or viewers) engage with naturally.
How Can I Customize Freytag’s Pyramid to Fit My Writing?
Treat Freytag’s Pyramid as the chef treats the recipe more than as the builder treats the blueprint. It’s best used as a guide, not a formula.
Builders have to stick to that blueprint. Danger awaits if they don’t!
Chefs have more leeway, and so do writers.
Not every introduction or rising action or climactic scene/s or falling action or resolution has to be the same length. As a writer, you have to determine how to develop each of these plot points to best serve your story.
Similarly, each plot element does not have to be of matching length. Your introduction might be significantly longer than the resolution. Again, you have to determine what your story needs.
Keep the pyramid flexible; it needs to be able to go lopsided one way for one story and the other way for another if that’s what each respective story requires.
You’ve probably all seen films that start in medias res (like Forrest Gump or Goodfellas) or that start with the ending (like The Usual Suspects or The Hangover). You’ve likely read books that do the same (Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca is one example). That manipulation is allowed! The pyramid should guide you, not confine you.
Though these films (and books) shake up the pyramid a bit, they still demonstrate the overarching chronology and progression the pyramid provides, ultimately taking us back to the start, and leading us through the rise, fall, and resolution. Maybe.
Some writers prefer to torment their readers. I mean, “make their readers think,” (I jest) with unresolved endings. Remember “The Lady or the Tiger?” We’ll just never know for sure. These types of non-endings are often called cliff-hangers.
What Are Some Other Structural Devices?
Not everyone loves Freytag’s Pyramid. More modern writers sometimes find it formulaic or just overused and implement complicated time-hops or out-of-sequence events.
Options are good, and you should explore them all to see what structure suits your story best.
Still, it’s smart practice to have Freytag’s Pyramid at your fingertips. It gives definitive shape to your work, providing a flexible and familiar framework to help you flesh out ideas.
If you’re looking for a place to delve into the various dramatic structures, then our ProWritingAid Writer’s Community is the place to be. From Freytag to the Hero’s Journey and everything in between, join a forum of aspiring and established writers to discover what structure may work best for you.
Freytag in Action: What Do You Think?
If you’ve got a few more minutes, use them to apply your new plot-pyramid skills and compare notes with me.
Check out this beautiful, 2019 short-film Oscar winner: Matthew E. Cherry’s Hair Love. It’s well worth seven minutes of your time. As you watch, see if you recognize the different elements of Freytag’s Pyramid, the updated six-point (or seven-point) version.
If you don’t want my input until after you’ve watched, stop reading now! Then, come back and compare. Enjoy the film!
Introduction: We’re introduced to the little girl, her family (through the photo), and learn that “today” is a special day that’s marked with a heart on her calendar. We also learn that she’s got quite a lot of hair.
Inciting Event: The little girl (we later learn her name is Zuri) finds a hairstyle she wants to recreate with her own hair.
Rising Action: Zuri tries to style her hair, but isn’t successful. Her dad tries to just put a hat on her hair, intimidated by the task of styling it, but Zuri refuses it; she wants to look her best. We see what the two go through to try to style Zuri’s hair, only to see them fail again, leaving Zuri in tears and the dad defeated. Then, he hears/sees the vlog with Zuri’s mom giving the hairstyle tutorial, and dad and daughter try again. (Notice the flexibility: within the rising action is another mini-story where the dad imagines himself boxing Zuri’s hair—literally).
Climax: They do it! Zuri’s hair is perfect!
Falling Action: We see Zuri’s mom in the hospital, without hair, somewhat self-conscious. The family reunites, and the mom shows she’s impressed with Zuri’s hair. Zuri then gives her mom the picture she made of her with a crown, encouraging her to be proud of her appearance too.
Resolution: The family leaves the hospital together—they not only “won” the hair conflict, but are all together again.
Denouement: If you watched the credits, you see the ending continued, and it just gets happier as Zuri’s mom’s hair regrows showing she has defeated the illness (probably cancer) that caused her hair loss.