Freytag’s Pyramid, or 5 Act Structure

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Hands up who’d heard of Freytag’s Pyramid before? Anyone who said yes, well done. You’re doing a lot better than I was. I came across it by chance, whilst reading a blog post about annoying writer habits. In the event, it’s just a fancy term for a template 5-Act structure, named after a German chap who revitalised its popularity (but didn’t come up with it – the Roman critic Horace takes that prize). Rather than Aristotle’s ‘beginning, middle and end’ composition, Horace (and then Freytag) broke down a story slightly further.

Freytags_pyramid

  1. Exposition: aka set-up, information dump, groundwork
  2. Rising Action: a series of related incidents building towards the point of greatest interest
  3. Climax: the turning point for the protagonist
  4. Falling Action: during which the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels
  5. Denouement: aka revelation, resolution. From Wikipedia –  ‘the French word dénouement is derived from the Old French word desnouer, “to untie”, from nodus, Latin for “knot.” It is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.’

I think, to be honest, that the diagram – or even the word ‘pyramid’ – is a bit misleading. The climax rarely comes in the middle of the story. It’s more like a scalene triangle (and yes, I had to look that up, I’m not a mathematician). To do him justice, Freytag was applying this model to ancient and Shakespearean drama, but even they didn’t draw out the ending to quite the extent that this diagram suggests. Compare it to Aristotle’s 3-Act model, which has ‘beginning’ (exposition), ‘middle’ (rising action) and ‘end’ (climax, falling action and denouement). Or even – let’s go global here for a second – to the Japanese artistic structure of Jo-ha-kyū, which roughly translates as ‘beginning, break, rapid’ (begin slowly, speed up, end quickly).

That said, even 3-Act structure uses five points within it:

5 crosses in 3 acts

5 crosses in 3 acts

In many ways, then 5 Act structure and 3 Act structure seem to be identical. It’s just a question of whether you divide by crosses or by lines, but the two mean the same.

Basically, I think where I’m going with this is don’t be intimidated by fancy labels for stuff. Write a beginning, a middle and an end, with an awareness of what should go in each bit. And, thanks to our using these structures for the last 2,500 years or so of storytelling, you’ll find that approach pretty instinctive anyway.

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