Freytag's Triangle

Plot Lesson #1: Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid is a method of structuring a story by mapping the progression of conflict from inception to resolution. Founded in the theatrical drama of Ancient Greece, basic plot structure for any narrative was laid out by Aristotle in Poetics. According to Aristotle, each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the nineteenth century, a German novelist Gustav Freytag flushed out these concepts and added two other key plot points into the model – the rising and falling action, and created a pictorial tool to help visualize the concept.

Before I go into detail about each of these different sections, I want to provide an example of a simple fairytale story that fits this mold – Little Red Riding Hood. I will first depict this story using the framework above, then explain each aspect of the pyramid in terms of both a general, theoretical concept and in terms of the fairytale example.

  • Exposition/Introduction: This part of the story sets the basic setting (time and place) and characters of the story. It enables the reader to become familiar with the relationships between characters, and the relationship of the protagonist to his or her surroundings. In the example, the story flushes out the protagonist (Red) and a supporting character (Granny), the setting (the woods) and the main action (taking food to Granny). The introduction concludes with the development of the conflict in the story. (For a more in depth analysis of types of narrative conflict, stay tuned for future posts!) In the example, the conflict arises when Little Red Riding Hood meets the antagonist (the wolf) and it becomes clear that he would like to eat both her and her grandmother.
  • Rising Action: This is usually the longest section of the story (as demonstrated by the segment labeled ‘rising action’ taking up the longest linear space in the diagram). It develops and depicts the tension caused by the conflict that was set up in the Introduction. It consists of further complication or obstacles that befall our struggling protagonist. In the example, the wolf does a number of things to prepare himself to eat Red, including eating her Granny, dressing up as her Granny, and then inviting Red inside, where she begins to question his identity, but it is too late!
  • Climax: This is the turning point, or the point of no return. The tension has risen to its highest point, and causes a reversal of fortune for the protagonist. In the example, the wolf succeeds in eating the protagonist, which was his evil plan from the start (it doesn’t get much more exciting than that!)
  • Falling Action: This is the part of the story where the fate of our protagonists begins to be decided. It usually includes the actions that are taken as a result of the climactic fortune-reversal in order to resolve the conflict. The length of this section varies, but it has decreased in significance in recent decades. In more modern tales, the climax is almost directly followed by the resolution of the conflict. In our example, however, the falling action consists of the hero, the Huntsman, saving Red and Granny from inside the belly of the wolf.
  • Resolution: This is when the conflict is resolved. Either the protagonist succeeds in his or her goal that is developed in the introduction or (s)he fails. In our example, Red succeeds in taking food to Granny (and surviving the journey). In either event, the conflict is resolved, and the remaining characters are left to go back to their normal lives. 
  • Denouement: You will note that the denouement is listed during the falling action in our theoretical framework, but falls after the resolution in our example. The denouement is a kind of ‘debriefing’ period when the change that the protagonist has undergone throughout the story is flushed out or analyzed. This can happen in any number of places after the climax, or not at all. In the case of our example, the denouement happens when Red reflects that she has learned her lesson and will not stray from the path again when she wanders in the woods.

It is important to note that Freytag’s Pyramid was conceived from observations, and was never meant to be proscriptive. Both Aristotle and later Freytag were describing trends that they saw in the plays or novels of the time. This model makes for an enticing story format, but is not the only way of telling a story. Some stories start at the end. Some start in the middle. Some don’t have a “falling action” or a concrete “resolution”. I suggest you use this concept as a way of organizing your thoughts, but if in a particular instance you are finding it distracting, then discard it and build your own story structure.

Writing Exercise:

With a story in mind, map out the plot and the action on the following template/worksheet. Take note of where you having trouble fitting any aspect into the template, and ask yourself why that might be. Again, that does not mean you should cut that particular aspect, but a story can only benefit from reflecting on the purpose any particular point serves.