Let's Blow Up Freytag's Pyramid

Some thoughts on story shapes and structures

In my last newsletter, I had a parenetical dig at Freytag’s Pyramid and a reader emailed me to ask if I’d every written essay about it. I haven’t, but story structure is something I teach in my classes and it seems like a perfect newsletter topic!

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ve probably seen it. It’s typically rendered like this:

Creative writing teachers use this to explain the basic structure of narratives from short stories to novels to movies. In my experience, they’re not ideological about this. I’ve never seen anyone insist that this is the Platonic shape all stories fit into. But because Freytag’s Pyramid is so ubiquitous it often becomes the only visual model students see.

I’ve always disliked it not just because it’s absurd to apply one model to the infinite shapes of narratives—which is very true—but even for what it is, the shape seems wrong. If we’re looking at formulaic Hollywood blockbusters or commercial fiction novels, the climax never occurs in the middle. Rather than taking up 50% of the structure, the combined falling action / denouement is normally 10%. In a short story, it might be a sentence or two!

It should look something closer to this:

I recently saw this rendered as “the inverted checkmark”:

The above is from Janet Burroway and makes a whole lot more sense to me as a model of modern short stories. (Novels might be a bit more complicated.) A traditional short story tends to have some inciting incident that leads to raising action that ends in some kind of crisis/decision/climax that leaves the character slightly changed. In a different spot from where they started.

Here let me pause and say a word for poor Gustav Freytag: this is not his fault! Freytag’s 1863 work Die Technik des Dramas was a study of five-act Greek and Shakespearian dramas. It didn’t cover all narrative forms. He wasn’t writing about twenty-first century short stories. He wasn’t alive to read them! He was studying a specific type of drama. The way his terms have been translated also causes confusion. For example, Freytag’s last point was “catastrophe” (or "katastrophe" in German), which makes a whole lot more sense than “denouement.”

To really understand Freytag’s pyramid, think back to tragedies like Hamlet or Oedipus Rex. In those plays the “climax” is what we in 2021 would call something like the “turning point.” The “falling action” isn’t a decrease in action or tension but rather when the hero goes from being on the rise, seeming to approach victory over their foes, to being headed toward inevitable tragedy. The “catastrophe” is when the hero dies, often in some bloody battle. This is what we’d normally call the climax.

But this has all been lost in translation. And decontextualized from Greek and Shakespearian tragedy, the structure and terms don’t make quite sense. In, say, modern superhero films the villain never wins and after a period of “falling action” (aka villainous forces winning) there is a drastic spike of rising action when the hero inevitably wins.

The larger point though is that these five points of his pyramid relate to the five act structure of those plays, not of all novels or short stories or flash fictions. Even in modern screenwriting, we tend to think in three act structures not five.

So what are some other shapes we can think about? One I enjoy showing students is the Kishōtenketsu, a four-act structure model popular in Japan (and also Korea and China). In the West, it tends to be rendered this way:

(You can see how Freytag’s Pyramid’s ubiquity distorts even other models…) Anyway, here’s how TV Tropes defines it:

  1. Introduction (ki) establishes the main characters and the setting they live in.

  2. Development (sho) deepens the reader's understanding of and emotional attachment to the characters.

  3. Twist (ten) introduces an unexpected and major change to the setting and to the characters' lives.

  4. Conclusion (ketsu) brings together and reconciles the first two acts with the changes of the third.

This is an interesting model in part because it doesn’t centralize conflict in the structure. It’s about introducing a change and then reconciling the change. I’ve also heard it described as introduce a new idea, and then reconciling the two ideas in some way. Of course, you can see how this overlaps in many ways with Freytag’s Pyramid, the Hero’s Journey, and other Western models. I would also say that a lot of Westerners online tend to overemphasize (and even exoticize) the “no conflict” element here. No one who has watched Japanese cinema or TV would think there’s a lack of conflict. I’ve talked to Japanese literature scholars who say that this is simply their model and that they apply it to Marvel movies and everything else. Just like people in America will analyze Miyazaki films with the Hero’s Journey or Freytag’s Pyramid.

These models are flexible. But I say the more of them the better. I personally love thinking about narratives not as having a conflict but as have two different ideas that must be reconciled. It’s opened up new story ideas for me.

I also typically show my students Kurt Vonnegut’s story shape drawings:

Here, Vonnegut looks at stories by the fortunes of the protagonist. The point here—in my reading at least—is not that there is one structure, but that you want some kind of combination of up/down movement. Well, unless your Kafka. I’d also note that in novels we expect far more up and down movement than a short fairy tale like “Cinderella.” I typically think of it as a series of waves, with perhaps the biggest wave crashing on you at the end.

Story movement is a whole nother lecture I give though, so perhaps another newsletter. I’ll end by saying I think it’s useful to think of endless shapes. Jane Alison’s recent Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative gathers a few non-pyramid models. She talks about “explosions” (where everything shoots out from a central event), “networks and cells” (a kind of mosaic structure), “waves” (more or less how I think of it), “spirals” (like traditional griot structures), and so on.

But you can have more fun with it. I enjoy this Martin Solares essay at Lit Hub where he draws quirckier shapes, like this for The Savage Detectives:

Models can be very useful. But it’s always important to remember that the shapes of stories are infinite.