Freytag’s Pyramid: Definitions and Examples of Dramatic Structure
by Kitty Turner
Who Was Gustav Freytag?
Gustav Freytag was a hugely popular German author and playwright active from 1840 to 1870. He was an admirer of Shakespeare and 19th-century French dramatists. The five-act structure common in classic plays and novels of the time led him to write The Technique of Drama (Die Technik des Dramas), where he published his visual representation of the shapes of stories, that we now know as Freytag’s Pyramid.
What is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid is a framework used to analyze and outline the dramatic structure of stories from beginning to end. Although the pyramid is not a one-size-fits-all solution for narrative fiction, a story missing one or more of the elements in Freytag’s pyramid can feel incomplete, or can fail to engage.
Freytag’s Pyramid consists of five parts, corresponding to five acts in a story:
The pyramid also includes the Inciting Incident and the Resolution as important catalyst points for the plot. The pyramid elicits reader engagement by establishing a foundation of who, where, and when, then continuing on through rising conflict to a climax, and finally arriving at a conclusion with a profound sense of satisfaction.
Predating Freytag by more than two thousand years, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that the unified plot structure in a drama is shaped like a pyramid, suggesting that a play should should have a beginning, middle, and end. Freytag expanded on Aristotle’s three-act structure to create his five-act pyramid.
1. Freytag’s Pyramid begins with exposition
Exposition has earned a bad name, and wrongly so. A novel without exposition would be a boring one indeed. In fact, exposition needs to be used sparingly and with an understanding of its purpose: to explain. As a writer, you never want to plunge a reader straight into a confusing situation. Instead, begin in action while grounding the reader in time, place, and other constructive narratives.
When implementing Freytag’s Pyramid, the story’s beginning is the ground on which you lay the foundation for your reader. The first page, or even the first sentence, is where you orient the reader by establishing the theme, setting, and by introducing the main characters.
Like writing a pitch, you need to grab the reader’s attention by immersing them in the world you’re about to build. Transport them from their armchairs to the middle of the battlefield, or the deck of a boat in a storm. Be specific and be clear.
Example: Exposition in a classic fairy tale
To illustrate Freytag’s Pyramid in action, let’s see how a classic fairy tale uses it. In Hansel and Gretel, the story begins with exposition: Two young children are starved and abused by their stepmother. Their birth mother is dead, and their browbeaten father takes the side of his new wife. Hansel and Gretel are desperate to solve this unbearable situation.
The inciting incident in Freytag’s Pyramid
The inciting incident is the hook within the exposition. The transition from exposition to the inciting incident forms the first act. After the exposition, present a conflict that must be resolved—a point of no return.
Example: Hansel and Gretel’s Inciting Incident
In Hansel and Gretel, the inciting incident is the children’s miserable life at home driving them to flee into the woods in search of food.
2. Build tension with rising action
After the inciting incident, build layers of tension, complexity, uncertainty, and suspense in the second act. The antagonist and supporting characters are introduced. Now is the time to investigate, present backstories, and explore your characters’ motives. This will probably be the lengthiest part of your work.
To test if your action is rising, ask yourself: are my characters moving or attempting to move, either physically or mentally? Typically, this movement involves overcoming a series of obstacles that delay your characters from achieving their overall goals, and hint at the reversal that will occur during the falling action. From the frying pan, into the fire!
An extra element that sometimes appears in the second act is the crisis. Unlike the inciting incident, the crisis is often an internal emotional or psychological event, and a reaction to meeting with the antagonist or a frustrating obstacle.
Rising action is what drives your characters and story to its dramatic climax at the top of Freytag’s Pyramids.
Example: Rising Action in Which the Witch Captures the Children
Hansel and Gretel use breadcrumbs to mark their path, but when they turn back, the trail is gone—the birds have eaten the crumbs. It’s getting dark, they’re starving and cold, animals are all around them, and they’re lost. In the woods they find a hut made of candy, inhabited by a witch. The witch lures the children inside, capturing them. Hansel is imprisoned and Gretel is enslaved.
3. The pinnacle of Freytag’s Pyramid: the climax
The third act of the five-act dramatic structure is the summit of Freytag’s Pyramid—the climax. It’s when a dramatic event happens that ensures things will never be the same again. If you’ve set your story up correctly, your reader should be experiencing a great deal of emotion and excitement at this point.
The climax is where everything is reversed. If your hero has been doing well up till now, the climax is where things take a tragic turn for the worse. Converseley, if things the protagonist has been having a hard time of things, the climax is where their situation begins to improve.
The climax is the dark before dawn, the top of the mountain, an epiphany, or a great act of courage. Nothing should be definitive at this point. Rather, the reader should be unsure how everything will play out, and should be having fun guessing how things will end.
Example: Will Hansel become a meal for the Witch?
Just as the witch is about to cook Hansel to death, Gretel tricks the witch by asking her to check the temperature of the fire. While the witch is bent over the oven door, Gretel pushes the witch in, and Hansel and Gretel escape. This is the dramatic climax, the point of no return where their tragic situation starts to turn around: nothing will ever be the same for poor Hansel and Gretel, or the witch!
4. Falling action is the reversal in Freytag’s Pyramid
Falling action is the time for reckoning and reversal. It’s where events reflect the change that occurred in the climax, and where the author can foreshadow what may occur in the resolution. It’s important to give hints of the upcoming resolution, because the final moment of suspense shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to the audience.
Ease up a bit on the chaotic energy of the climax and take the time to answer your reader’s questions. Here, you might reveal a plot twist or present one final trial for your hero to endure before they can accomplish what they need to grow.
As we head for the resolution, make it clear that something significant has changed for the protagonist. We may ask ourselves, now what? The challenge during the falling action is how to write this necessary transition without losing the reader’s engagement and attention. Freytag lays out two rules for this stage: the number of characters should be limited, and the number of scenes should be fewer than those in the rising action.
Example: Questions Are Answered During Falling Action
In Hansel and Gretel, the falling action addresses the question of how the children will survive. They discover jewels and gold. The path back to their house is mysteriously restored. A kindly horseman offers them a ride.
5. Complete your story with resolution and denouement
We come full circle. Pan out to reveal the repercussions of all the previous actions and decisions. The resolution is where the author provides the reader a sense of satisfaction, finality, and fulfillment.
Whatever was set up in the inciting incident is resolved in the resolution, and the events have been hinted at during the falling action so that they’re not a complete surprise to the reader. Our characters and readers can move on with their lives. Create closure and understanding, and with the protagonist’s final words and thoughts show how they’ve earned wisdom.
The denouement is like an epilogue. Loose ends might be tied up, a moral or lesson might be delivered, or a mirror held up to the reader. Additionally, you can end in exposition by explaining the ultimate fates of the protagonist, antagonist, and major supporting characters.
Example: A Fairytale Resolution and Denouement
Hansel and Gretel’s father has learned his lesson. The children discover that their stepmother died very soon after they left. Hansel and Gretel live very happily with their father in the hut in the woods.
How to use Freytag’s Pyramid to improve Your story
Most of us start our writing journey with only intuition to guide us. At first, intuitive storytelling works well for most writers because, as Aristotle explained, we inherently understand that a story has a beginning, middle, and end.
As your ambition and abilities grow, you might seek a deeper understanding of story structure to add complexity, comedy, novelty, and suspense to your work. Freytag’s Pyramid is a simple set of practical rules that can be utilized, rearranged, or broken in order to create unique effects in fiction.
Applying the principles of Freytag’s Pyramid can be a useful tool in helping you plan the structure of your story. It can help you decide if your story is missing a critical element necessary for effective drama, and it can help you plan your story so that its emotional impact is maximized.
Freytag’s Pyramid outline exercise
Label the top of five index cards or sheets of paper with the acts of Freytag’s Pyramid: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
On the card labeled “exposition,” add a bullet point for the inciting incident.
On the card labeled “rising action,” add a bullet point for the crisis.
On the card labeled “denouement,” add a bullet point for the resolution.
On the “exposition” card, write down the who, where, and when for your story. At the inciting incident bullet point, write down what happens to ignite and propel your protagonist into action. What desire needs to be met? What are the stakes?
On the “rising action” card, list the scenes that climb toward the climax. Think of the pattern of tension and release as steps. Write down what fuels the protagonist’s decision to climb, obstacle by obstacle, to the summit of the story and to pass the point of no return.
On the “resolution” card, write the beginning, middle, and end of your climax. Most likely this will be one major scene.
On the “falling action” card, list the scenes that wrap up the arcs you’ve established throughout the previous acts. Remember Freytag’s rules for falling action: the number of characters should be limited, and the number of scenes should be fewer than those in the rising action.
On the “denouement” card, write your ending: what you want your readers to take away from your story and what lessons your characters have learned. For the resolution bullet point, write down the event that brings the main plot to a close, and sets up the final wrapping up of events.
I enjoy hand-writing outlines on cards, but the same exercise works just as well if typed on a computer. Furthermore, the acts of Freytag’s Pyramid can be applied to a finished work as a diagnostic tool. If your story is falling flat, map your scenes against the structure of the pyramid to locate the missing elements.
A study of Freytag’s Pyramid applied to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (spoilers!)
Exposition - We meet Eleanor Vance. It is established that Eleanor is meek and unsure of herself. She has no real life of her own, and has spent her adult years caring for her elderly mother. The backstory is told of Eleanor’s father’s death, and a display of Eleanor’s psychic powers caused by her grief. We also come to understand Eleanor’s dysfunctional relationship with her sister and Eleanor’s desire for adventure, self-definition, and belonging.
Inciting Incident - Eleanor’s gets an invitation to Hill House from a parapsychologist, Dr. Montague. She steals her sister’s car to make the hundred-mile journey to participate in Dr. Montague’s study of the interaction between psychics and hauntings.
Rising Action - Before the other characters arrive at Hill House, Eleanor meets the glamorous Theadora. Theadora befriends Eleanor, they explore the grounds together, and they form a bond on the sunny bank of a creek running through the property. Luke, and finally Dr. Montague, are introduced. The evil nature of the house is explored through a series of hauntings: getting lost in the shifting maze of the house, banging in the night, cold spots, and ghostly whispers and apparitions. Eleanor’s lack of confidence causes her to alienate herself from the group little by little and to align with the house’s apparently malicious desire to capture her soul. Mrs. Montague arrives with Arthur and channels ghostly messages, oftentimes about Eleanor, through the use of her planchette.
The Crisis - Dr. Montague, Theadora, and Luke accuse Eleanor of writing HELP ELEANOR COME HOME on the hallway wall. The others suspect Eleanor may be going mad or was unstable to begin with. Eleanor is frightened that the house is singling her out. More writing appears on the walls in Theadora’s room, this time, in blood.
The Climax - Eleanor decides that Dr. Montague, Mrs. Montague, Arthur, Theadora, and Luke are not her friends, but that they’re conspiring against her. She begins to believe the house is her protector. She hears songs sung only to her. The humans of the house feel like threats, but the house is comforting. Under the house’s control, she climbs the turret in the library, and Luke climbs the rickety, collapsing spiral stairs to rescue her.
Falling Action - The group rejects Eleanor while the house enchants her with a feeling of belonging. Dr. Montague decides that, for Eleanor’s best interest, she must leave the house. Mrs. Montague proves immune to the haunting and reveals that the alleged writing in blood in Theador’s room was never really there. Theodora and Luke pack up Eleanor’s car. Dr. Montague calls Eleanor’s sister and insists that Eleanor drive herself off the property. The group bids Eleanor goodbye.
Resolution - Under the influence of the house, Eleanor drives her car toward the front gate and kills herself. The moment before her death, she regains her senses and wonders why she has turned the wheel toward an oak tree and stepped on the accelerator.
Denouement - In the denouement, Dr. Montague publishes his paper, but his observations are rejected as quackery by his peers. The house is revisited one last time in a scene where many ghosts, including Eleanor, are trapped by the evil, pervading presence of Hill House.