What is Freytag’s Pyramid, and how can it help you write better stories? In simple terms, Freytag’s Pyramid is a five-part map of dramatic structure itself. Understanding the five steps of Freytag’s Pyramid will give you a clearer sense of what makes a strong, compelling story.
Most stories follow a simple pattern called Freytag’s Pyramid.
Storytelling is one of the oldest human traditions, and although the art of creative writing traverses dozens of genres and thousands of languages, the actual storytelling formula hasn’t changed all that much. Whether you’re writing short stories, screenplays, nonfiction, or even some narrative poetry, the majority of stories follow a fairly simple pattern called Freytag’s Pyramid.
Introduction to Freytag’s Pyramid
What is Freytag’s Pyramid? Novelist Gustav Freytag developed this narrative pyramid in the 19th century, as a description of a structure fiction writers had used for millennia. It’s quite famous, so you may have heard it mentioned in an old English class, or maybe more recently in one of our online fiction writing courses.
Freytag’s Pyramid describes the five key stages in successful storytelling, offering a conceptual framework for writing a story from start to finish. These stages are:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
Here is the five-part structure of Freytag’s Pyramid in diagram form:
If you’re looking to write your next story or polish one you just wrote, read more on Freytag’s Pyramid and what each element can do for your writing.
1. Freytag’s Pyramid: Exposition
Your story has to start somewhere, and in Freytag’s Pyramid, it starts with the exposition. This part of the story primarily introduces the major fictional elements – the setting, characters, style, etc. In the exposition, the writer’s sole focus is on building the world in which the story’s conflict happens.
The length of your exposition depends on the complexity of the story’s conflict, the extent of the world being written, and the writer’s own personal preference. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is wrought with backstory and exposition, often spanning chapters of pure worldbuilding. By contrast, C. S. Lewis offers very little exposition in the Chronicles of Narnia series, choosing instead to entangle conflict with worldbuilding. Still, whether your exposition is fifty pages or a sentence, use this part of the story to draw readers in. Make your fictional world as real as this one.
Your exposition should end with the “inciting incident” – the event that starts the main conflict of the story.
2. Freytag’s Pyramid: Rising Action
The rising action explores the story’s conflict up until its climax. Often, things “get worse” in this part of the story: someone makes a wrong decision, the antagonist hurts the protagonist, new characters further complicate the plot, etc.
For many stories, rising action takes up the most amount of pages. However, while this part of the book explores the story’s conflict and complications, the rising action should investigate much more than just the story’s plot. In rising action, the reader often gains access to key pieces of backstory. As the conflict unfolds, the reader should learn more about the characters’ motives, the world of the story, the themes being explored, and you may want to foreshadow the climax as well.
Finally, when you look back at the story’s rising action, it should be clear how each plot point connects to the story’s climax and aftermath. But first, let’s write the climax.
Upcoming Fiction Writing Courses
The Hero’s Journey For Storytellers
with Gloria Kempton
August 12th, 2020
Structure your story and give it meaning with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.
Plot Your Novel
with Jack Smith
August 12th, 2020
Over eight weeks, you'll develop a solid basis in the fictional elements—protagonist, setting, secondary characters, point of view, plot, and theme—while you develop the outline of your novel. You'll receive feedback at all stages from your fellow writers and your instructor.
How to Firm Up the “Mushy Middle” of Any Story
with Jeff Lyons
August 26th, 2020
Ensure a strong middle throughline for any story. Say goodbye to the "mushy middle," and hello to stories that work.
Flash Fiction: Writing the Short-Short Story
with Barbara Henning
September 2nd, 2020
Write 1–3-page flash fiction in this online course with Barbara Henning, drawing on classic, poetic & experimental elements. Read the form’s masters.
The “I’ve Always Wanted To Write Fiction” Workshop
with Shelley Singer
September 9th, 2020
Learn the basics of fiction writing and submit weekly writing for feedback from Shelley Singer, author of 13 novels. It's time to start.
3. Freytag’s Pyramid: Climax
Of course, every part of your story is important, but if there’s one part where you really want to stick the landing, it’s the climax. Here, the story’s conflict peaks and we learn the fate of the main characters. A lot of writers enter the climax of their story believing that it needs to be short, fast, and action-packed. While some stories might require this style of climax, there’s no strict formula when it comes to climax writing. Think of the climax as the “turning” point in the story – the central conflict is addressed in a way that cannot be undone.
Whether the climax is only one scene or several chapters is up to you, but remember that your climax isn’t just the turning point in the story’s plot structure, but also its themes and ideas. This is your opportunity to comment on whatever concept is driving your story’s narrative, giving the reader an emotional takeaway.
Note: for playwrights, the climax is usually the middle act, though of course not every theatrical production follows the rules.
4. Freytag’s Pyramid: Falling Action
In falling action, the writer explores the aftermath of the climax. Do other conflicts arise as a result? How does the climax comment on the story’s central themes? How do the characters react to the irreversible changes made by the climax?
The story’s falling action is often the trickiest part to write. The writer must start to tie up loose ends from the main conflict, explore broader concepts and themes, and push the story towards some form of a resolution while still keeping the focus on the climax and its aftermath. If the rising action pushes the story away from “normal,” the falling action is a return to a “new normal,” though rising and falling action look dramatically different.
At the same time, the story must still engage the reader. When writing the story’s falling action, be sure to expand on the world of the story, the mysteries that lie within that world, and whatever else makes your story compelling.
5. Freytag’s Pyramid: Resolution/Denouement
How do you end a story? One of the most frustrating parts of writing is figuring out where the narrative ends. Theoretically, the story can continue on forever, especially in the aftermath of a life-altering climax, or even if the story is set in an alternate world.
The resolution of the story involves tying up the loose ends of the climax and falling action. Sometimes, this means following the story’s aftermath to a chilling conclusion – the protagonist dies, the antagonist escapes, a fatal mistake has fatal consequences, etc. Other times, the resolution ends on a lighter note. Maybe the protagonist learns from their mistakes, starts a new life, or else forgives and rectifies whatever incited the story’s conflict. Either way, use the resolution to continue your thoughts on the story’s themes, and give the reader something to think about after the last word is read.
Some writers also use the term “denouement” when discussing the resolution. A denouement [day-new-mawn] refers to the last event that ties up the story’s loose ends, sometimes expressed in the story’s epilogue or closing scene.
Closing Thoughts on Dramatic Structure
Though some literary works break the traditional narrative structure of Freytag’s Pyramid or try to invert it, every story has a relationship to these five dramatic elements. Once you’ve fine-tuned these parts of the story, you’ll have written your next creative work from start to finish!