Writing a good story is about more than coming up with an idea and writing a few scenes. You also need to know how to plot everything out in a way that gives the story a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.
There are many ways writers can approach this, but one of the best ways is the Fichtean curve. Let’s take a closer look at how this plot structure can transform your storytelling.
What is the Fichtean curve?
The Fichtean curve is a story structure made up of three elements: rising action, climax, and falling action. Unlike other narrative frameworks, the Fichtean curve is designed to be simple, and lands the characters directly in the action of the story. This makes it a favorite with action, adventure, and mystery writers.
Compared to other plot structures, this plot structure was designed to be simple. Because the majority (about two thirds) of your book will be what’s called the “rising action,” it will comprise the first and most important part of the story structure.
In narrative terms, rising actions refers to the part of your story that moves your characters closer to the climax. After an “inciting incident,” you must come up with new events from time to time to keep the narrative moving forward while maintaining a sense of tension. The inciting incident is the event that moves your central characters out of their comfort zones and into their journey through your story.
Eventually, you must write a satisfying climax that shows how your characters react to the final crisis of the story. This helps create a satisfying resolution—but your narrative structure must also account for what happens after the crisis.
That final element is falling action. Falling action is where you release any lingering tension from the climax and gives your audience a chance to unwind. After the climax, you’ll likely have a variety of loose ends left regarding various plot points. By wrapping up those loose ends, you can create a more satisfying conclusion.
Following this kind of act structure helps you provide the kind of satisfying resolution that lovers of modern novels demand.
The “curve” refers to the shape of these elements make when drawn on paper. Imagine the rising action as a line starting at the bottom and curving upward toward the climax. The climax is at the crest of the rising action. From there, falling action is a curve reaching downward. Visually, it looks like half of a circle charting the rise, crescendo, and fall of your narrative.
Who created the Fichtean curve?
The Fichtean curve was invented by John Gardner in 1983. We can see his first use of this specific curve in his novel The Art of Fiction.
To best understand how Gardner, himself a prolific writer, created this narrative structure, you should think of him as an innovative kind of chef. The basic ingredients (including rising action, climax, and falling action) were all around before Gardner was even born. However, he took these individual ingredients and created a new narrative structure that works surprisingly well for most stories.
From a short story to a larger novel, the Fichtean curve can help you plot out how your story begins and how it ends. While this story structure can work well for any narrative, it arguably works best with the same kinds of genres Gardner himself specialized in: thrillers and mysteries.
Understanding the three elements of the Fichtean curve
Previously, we defined the three key elements of the Fichtean curve: rising action, climax, and falling action. These elements form a simple framework for your writing, which is one reason this is such a common plot structure.
However, it’s one thing to know what this structure is, but it’s another thing to use it properly. To help you plan a better book from the first chapter to the last, we’re going to take a closer look at all three of these different elements.
1. Rising action
Rising action is perhaps the most important element of this plot structure, because it accounts for so much of your story. No matter how long your narrative is, rising action should account for approximately two thirds of the text.
You need to pull off something of a balancing act when writing this section. As we noted before, rising action needs to include escalating events that help to ratchet up the tension—the inciting incident. At the same time, you need to use this section to include any necessary narrative exposition, character backstory, and worldbuilding that your story requires.
Don’t think about tension-building, character-building, and worldbuilding as separate things, though. Instead, you need to accomplish all of these points of craft by showing how your characters react to each new crisis and plot point. This helps provide important lore, and keeps readers engaged without you having to slow the narrative down to explain important things.
The climax should be the moment of most extreme tension in your story. At this point, your main character and the rest of the cast have no choice but to confront the main problem at hand. The stakes should be high, with characters facing a literal or figurative death.
Readers traditionally expect the main character to overcome these challenges and win the day, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to what everyone expects. It may be that the characters in your own story fail, and they’ll spend the next and final section of the book facing the consequences of their failures.
No matter how you resolve the climax, you should consider the climax itself a very important aspect of both plot and character development. Readers love to follow along as the story builds to a satisfying climax. After that climax, none of the characters involved should be exactly the same as how they started.
3. Falling action
The falling action section of your story is where we see what happens next to each primary character. Now that they’ve faced their final challenge and either triumphed or lost, it’s important to show what happens next.
In pop culture, one great example of falling action comes from the Wizard of Oz film. By the end of the movie, we’ve seen Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion dodge many crises, like flying monkeys and fields of soporific flowers. In the end, they confront the Wicked Witch and defeat her.
The movie doesn’t end with the death of the Wicked Witch, though. Afterward, the characters learn the truth about the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s traveling companions receive the gifts they were hoping to get, though, in a twist, they realize these qualities were inside of them all along. Dorothy returns to Kansas, leaving behind both the joyful fellowship of her new friends and the frights of threats such as the Wicked Witch. This section is the falling action portion of the movie, occurring after the climax of the Wicked Witch’s death.
As a film, the Wizard of Oz preceded the Fichtean curve and doesn’t serve as a perfect example of its overall structure. However, the movie does offer solid information on how writers can write falling action in such a way that it blends character development and a satisfying resolution.
How is the Fichtean curve different from other narrative structures?
The Fichtean curve is different from other narrative structures in that it’s short and relatively streamlined. As a three-point story structure, it’s different from the more traditional Freytag’s pyramid structure or the Hero’s Journey structure.
Freytag’s pyramid was originally devised to help readers and writers understand classic tragedies. It’s comprised of an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and then catastrophe. In modern story plotting, many writers replace the catastrophe with the denouement, giving us the traditional five-part structure. The Fichtean curve essentially retains the middle elements of this (rising action, climax, and falling action) while streamlining things by removing the need for both a separate intro and a separate denouement.
By comparison, the Hero’s Journey is much more complex format, comprised of twelve different elements. Historically, this complex plotting strategy is a solid way to develop a kind of mythic plot, because it outlines the exact moments when the protagonist is called to adventure, meets a mentor, achieves a reward, returns home, and so on. The Fichtean curve, meanwhile, is limited to just the three stages, allowing writers to add any mixture of conflicts and crises into the rising action without following the stricter outline of the Hero’s Journey.
If you like the idea beginning your story with a bang and moving it along at a fast pace, then the Fichtean curve may be right for you. If you prefer to lay our more groundwork and guide the reader along at a more leisurely pace, one of the other traditional narrative structures may be a better fit for you.
What are some literary examples of the Fichtean curve?
Literature is filled with great examples of the Fichtean curve. Two of our best examples are John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Max Brooks’ World War Z.
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
In A Confederacy of Dunces, things move quickly once protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly has to get a job to pay for his mother’s hefty $1,000 traffic fine (she was driving drunk). He ends up getting a job, but ruins things by writing fraudulent letters and acting rudely, resulting in him getting fired. He then moves to another job selling hot dogs, gets in trouble for eating the merchandise, and sinks lower into shame and misery. He thinks things are turning around once he meets someone with political aspirations, and Reilly promises to help the man with a political launch party. As you can see, the rising action structure helps propel Reilly from one mishap to another.
All of this has been part of the rising action—we see our protagonist deal with various crises. The climax of this story occurs when he tries to give a speech at a so-called political rally, but nobody takes him seriously. This is effectively his big moment, but he can’t rise to the occasion. He then tries to drown himself in alcohol but gets injured by a dog, eventually waking up in the hospital.
Sadly, Reilly did not rise to the final challenge of the climax (taking control of his life and being taken seriously), and he faces pressure to improve his life from his mother and pressure to pay for previous actions (like those fraudulent letters). This prolonged falling action section wraps up with Reilly escaping to New York with a woman, but it’s clear that the entire experience throughout the book has changed him for the worse.
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The post-war interview structure of Max Brooks’ World War Z lends itself well to the Fichtean curve. Even though the war is over by the time the interviews occur, their harried tales of the past creates rising action as we learn more about zombies rising from the grave and threatening humanity all over the world. It’s especially tense as we learn how different nations tried (and often failed) to get the zombie contagion under control.
This builds to a natural climax as we learn about how the United States military developed specific anti-zombie weaponry and fighting techniques, and effectively takes control of the country. However, the falling action section of the book makes it clear that millions of zombies have survived, meaning this threat is dormant but not extinguished.
Meanwhile, the author reveals how different nations have been changed (China is a democracy, Russia is a theocracy, and Cuba is the economic center of the world) and how the world will never be the same again.
While these are very different stories, the Fichtean curve reveals what they have in common. Each story starts moving very quickly, forgoing heavy exposition for a quick dive into the action. The crises of the rising action section are presented in no particular order, giving the writers greater freedom than with a structure like Freytag’s pyramid or the Hero’s Journey. Each story is content to end on a somewhat ambiguous falling action section rather than the writer trying to tie everything up with a bow of more traditional denouement.
What writing genres work best with the Fichtean curve?
In the right hands, the curve can work with almost any genre. Traditionally, though, it works best in fantasy, horror, mystery, and romance.
Fantasy tales area good fit for this structure because you can quickly thrust different character archetypes together without much exposition. As their skills grow, your characters will need to fight escalating threats, and the Fichtean curve helps you develop unique challenges outside the paradigm of more complicated structures like the Hero’s Journey.
Horror stories also work well with the Fichtean curve, because the rising action helps you quickly move your characters into the fray. That same structure helps you throw the players of the story into unique scenarios where they must escape evil, even as they try to uncover the mysteries surrounding what’s hunting them down.
Speaking of mysteries, mystery is a great genre for the Fichtean curve. New leads the to track down and investigate are new crises that comprise the rising action. This builds to a logical climax: your protagonists solving the mystery.
Finally, romance works surprisingly well with the Fichtean curve. Because rising action quickly throws characters into crisis, this can help you emulate the whirlwind rush of them suddenly falling in love. Crises may be things like dates gone wrong, mistaken intentions, and self-doubt. Eventually, though, your characters face a climax where they either overcome these crises and enjoy a happily ever after, or succumb to the final crisis and go their separate ways.
How the Fichtean curve can help you develop your characters
Compared to structures like Freytag’s pyramid and the Hero’s Journey, the Fichtean curve devotes less time to building your characters through exposition and introduction. However, the curve works quite well when it comes to developing your characters through conflict.
Your characters reveal who they really are when they encounter a crisis point. As in real life, it doesn’t matter who they think they are or say they are. What matters is how they act when confronted with a crisis that’s beyond their control.
Since the first two thirds of the curve should be devoted to rising action, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to throw crisis after crisis at your characters. This helps you keep the story moving at an exciting pace even as readers learn more about how your characters respond to conflict.
Why the Fichtean curve is great for telling character-driven stories
The idea of character-driven stories can mean different things to different writers. However, from short stories all the way to novels, a character-driven story mostly means that you develop the plot more through character actions and dialogue rather than through narration.
The Fichtean curve is great for telling character-driven stories because, as we detailed before, this story structure is designed to quickly throw your characters into one crisis after another. The fast pace of the curve means your they’ll encounter each other sooner rather than later. Once in crisis, they’ll need to coordinate and communicate if they wish to overcome the challenges they face.
In the Fichtean curve, each crisis functions to reveal more of what your characters are really like. As you pile one crisis on top of another, your characters naturally keep the story moving forward as the story reaches its climax.
Write a better story by using a plot structure
The Fichtean curve is a great way to take your many ideas and turn them into an engaging and carefully-plotted piece of writing. Once you start writing, you can quickly give your main character challenges worthy of their skills. Planning out each plot point under this structure also helps you create a tighter overall narrative.
Of course, it’s one thing to study the Fichtean curve and it’s another to use it. Practice these skills to help improve your writing and unlock your full potential as a storyteller!