German playwright, novelist, and patriot Gustav Freytag’s (1816–1895) study of 5-act dramatic structure, Die Technik des Dramas, represented dramatic theory in the form of an equilateral triangle, which came to be known as Freytag’s Pyramid and has been the standard of good structure since the mid 19th century.
In his model, the plot of a story consists of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.
For many, Freytag’s Pyramid offers a useful way for writers to organize their thoughts and ideas to describe the main problem of a story.
Take, for instance, a cold kettle of water, which is useless for making tea (exposition, or problematic situation). Consider the attempts to solve the problem by applying heat to the cold water (rising action), the waters of conflict coming to a boil (climax) the source of heat successfully removed from the water to avert the crisis, and the pressure falls (falling action). The water is, nevertheless transformed by the process (now hot, and therefore perfect for making tea).
My example is, of course, simplistic, so let’s establish a few more details: the setting is rural Virginia during a storm that has felled trees and the lights keep flickering. Our hero has barely settled into his new home and is dying for a cup of tea.
Now we need some opposition to his goal to form the rising action and increase tension so that the resolution feels satisfyingly cathartic: perhaps the power goes out, so, with the electric kettle and stove out of action, the tea lover must run out to the garden shed and retrieve the gas-fired camping stove from one of the many moving boxes that haven’t yet been unpacked, but he didn’t mark them very efficiently so he has trouble finding the right one; then, after all the trouble of finding it, setting it up, failing to find a gas lighter, finding matches left by the previous owner, and attempting to turn it on he discovers the gas tank is empty, although he knows he’s never used it; so he knocks on a neighbor’s door for help but there’s no answer; having thus exhausted all other options, his last resort is to drive through the storm, avoiding falling trees, to buy a fresh gas tank from the nearest store and, now safely home, he is at last able to boil water for a perfect pot of tea.
Perhaps it would be important to establish during the exposition stage that this is an Englishman, for whom a good pot of tea on a rainy day is worth the risk of life and limb…
These events show a clear desire line (to make tea), cause and effect (progressively more intense attempts to remove the obstacles to making tea), leading to a resolution which makes sense in the context of all that has gone before it, thus complying with Freytag’s requirement that “the end of the action must, also, appear as the intelligible and inevitable result of the entire course of the action” and that it must “represent the complete termination of the strife and excited conflicts” (29).
So what of the falling action in our example of making a pot of tea? If the successful boiling of water is the climax, then the falling action is making the pot of tea, and then we need a denouement – a change not just in the transformation of water to tea, but in the protagonist’s life. Perhaps his neighbour returns home to find the power out and comes to our hero’s door for help, clearing up the mystery of where he’s been (his car choked while driving home through flooded roads), and why the original gas tank was empty (the neighbor saw the moving guys drop the box, damaging the tank so the gas escaped). And the final denouement? The two neighbours bond over the perfect cup of tea and the Englishman discovers he is no longer alone in his new environment. He has made a friend.
The final bow on the present of story is that because his simple pleasure in a cup of tea is amplified by his neighbour’s convivial company, he resolves to reach out more than he has done since moving in. Now the story takes on life beyond its last page as we imagine the difference his new friend will make to his hitherto solitary existence.
Hopefully, you can now see why this story structure has been popular for so long, but Freytag’s Pyramid was based on even older theories set forth by Aristotle in Poetics, and was intended for the production of ancient Greek drama, not modern novel writing.
In Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook he observes that, “Gustav Freytag… developed his famous pyramid in 1863. We have all labored under the burden of its shadow ever since. At times dutifully, at times with snarling defiance” (139).
Authors now prefer to position the crisis nearer the end of a short story, novel, or film—so that the rising action of the Pyramid is lengthened, and the falling action shortened—causing the climax to occur about three quarters of the way through the story, and resulting in a Pyramid shaped more like an inverted check mark.
Indeed, the shorter the fiction, the more abbreviated the set up, climax, falling action, and denouement tend to be, with the majority of the time spent on the rising action. As Jesse Lee Kercheval points out in Building Fiction, “a character in a short story can be left on the edge of change. But novels make us want to see the change happen, to see the person’s life settled, for better or worse.” (86).
The result of this shift is that the classical five act dramatic structure becomes a three act novel structure, the second act being as long as the first and third acts combined. But to be successful, three act structure still depends on a midpoint pivot, ghosting Freytag’s central climax, to prevent what is commonly known as the ‘flabby’ middle act, in which the tension sinks like a sponge cake baked at inadequate heat.
“Which is better?” asks Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing (241) before responding, “There can be no set rule on this point, if the playwright can maintain the conflict.”
In conclusion, even the most perfect cup of tea can be enhanced by the innovative addition of cake, and so Freytag’s Pyramid, while still influential, may be adapted to meet the special demands of each storytelling form, and evolving audience expectations.
Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.
Freytag, Gustav. Freytag’s Technique of the Drama : An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. An Authorized Translation from the 6th German Ed. Trans. Elias J. MacEwan. 6th ed. Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1894. Archive.org. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Kercheval, Jesse Lee. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 2003. Print.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. New York: Abrams Image, 2013. Print.