What is Freytag’s Pyramid?
You might be familiar with the Three Act Structure, or the ‘Beats’ of Save The Cat, but have you heard of their predecessor, Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid was the brainchild of Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth century playwright and novelist who liked to peer beneath the surface of his favourite plays – namely Greek tragedies and Shakespearean drama – and figure out how they worked.
He realised they all followed a distinct dramatic arc, which he plotted out in a pyramid for everyone to see. It’s one of the more popular dramatic structures that writers use, and likely the oldest. It consists of two halves, the play, and the counterplay, which together form a pyramid that contains five acts. These five acts are the introduction, rising movement, climax, falling action, and catastrophe.
How Does Freytag’s Pyramid Work?
As we just found out, Freytag’s Pyramid is formed by five acts:
- Rising action
- Climax (midpoint)
- Falling Action
- Catastrophe (denouement)
In a nutshell, Freytag’s Pyramid works by giving writers a way to structure their story that makes it comprehensible to readers. Each act represents a different stage of conflict or tension.
A little disclaimer here: this might not be a structure you’ll want to use if you’re writing a rom-com. Freytag was all about the tragic. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but Freytag’s Pyramid is in essence all about storytelling, and understanding it will help any aspiring novelist really nail their plotting, whatever their genre.
Freytag’s Pyramid, Act by Act
So that you can see the Pyramid in action, as well as explaining the acts, we’re going to use one of his most famous sources as our example. Namely the classic Shakespeare play, ‘Macbeth.’ Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
Act 1: Introduction
It’s always helpful to consider your reader when beginning your novel. Where are we? What’s going on? This is where you show us the world you’ve created and introduce us to your characters. Your first act also needs to tell us what situation your characters are in and it needs to end with the famous ‘inciting incident’ – the kick-off, the discovery, the moment everything changes.
In ‘Macbeth’ we see our anti-hero emerge victorious from war. We’re introduced to our other main players, Banquo, King Duncan, Macduff, Malcolm, and the most excellent of characters, Lady Macbeth. The inciting incident is the three witches putting the worm of ambition into Macbeth’s mind when they prophesy that he could be king… All hail, Macbeth.
Act 2: Rising Action
This is usually the longest act and it’s where things get meaty. The inciting incident will have set off a series of events that are building to the climax (or midpoint if you prefer). Obstacles that your character must overcome to get what they want will become more and more difficult. They will really have to strive.
This is where we can start to learn about the motives of your creations – how far are they going to go to get what they desire? Why do they want it? Your protagonists might make bad choices in this act and get themselves into trouble. Maybe they’ll face danger from enemies, or they might even be the danger themselves. Or things could just be going really well because you know pride always comes before a fall. New characters can cause new problems, but all the elements in this section need to be raising the temperature.
Back to our Scottish friends. The Rising Action of ‘Macbeth’ is full of drama. Macbeth and his wife have plotted and schemed and actually murdered poor King Duncan. Not only that, but they’ve managed to get his sons to run away, making them look very guilty indeed. They’ve also bumped off some pesky guard witnesses. They knew what they wanted and they went to extremes in order to get it – they’re nearly there and things are looking good for them. Or are they?
Act 3: Climax (Midpoint)
This is the pointy bit of Freytag’s Pyramid, where all the lovely tension has been leading up to so far. From this point on, in our tragedies at least, it’s a race to the bottom. Unlike in other dramatic models where the power scene is at the end (think Battle of Hogwarts or Frodo at the crater of Mount Doom) this instead is a crisis in the middle of the narrative. It was all going so well, but now it’s time to pull the thread that will cause everything in your characters’ lives to unravel.
As for Macbeth, he’s done it. He’s finally been crowned King; his ambition has peaked. Unfortunately, he has also sent some frankly useless assassins to get Banquo, and they’ve let his son escape to tell the tale. And this is before the ghost of poor murdered ex-King Duncan turns up at the coronation banquet and terrifies Macbeth so badly that his lords think perhaps, he’s not such a great kingly option after all. Down we go into Act 4, the Falling Action.
Act 4: Falling Action
It’s important to know here that ‘falling’ does not necessarily mean winding down – rather once you’ve crossed the point of no return, the protagonists star is falling where it was rising before. It can and should still be full of tension and anticipation. We know the final catastrophe is coming, and we can’t tear our eyes away from the inevitability of it all. This is where you can tidy up some of the plot points that began in Rising Action, and reveal some of the secrets you might have hidden away.
You can throw in some hints at hope to make us think maybe everything will be okay if you want to add some suspense, but this is a tragedy template after all. We know it won’t end well.
Back in Scotland, it’s all going terribly for Macbeth. The witches have conned him into thinking he’s invincible, he’s slaughtered his friend’s family in an attempt to strengthen his hold on the throne, and his enemies are coming. Oh, and Lady Macbeth has driven herself to the edge with guilt. Out, damned spot!
Act 5: Catastrophe (Denouement)
And here we are, all is undone, your character has brought themselves, or been brought, to an ultimate low. It’s the end of the road. This act ends in a roundup of what happens next – if anything – and it’ll be up to you whether there’s a glimpse of redemption or happiness to be had. If this is the case, your final act is a denouement rather than just a catastrophe. If you’re Freytag, it’s catastrophe all round, as per Macbeth, who really has messed everything right up. Wild ambition is bad, guys, keep away from those daggers.
At Glamis, enemies have crept on the castle hiding behind branches, Lady Macbeth is dead, and all Macbeth can think about is the utter meaningless of life. It’s his own fault really, and it’s almost a mercy when untimely ripped Macduff ends his suffering, and Malcolm is made king, restoring the correct order of things.
Some Final Thoughts on Freytag’s Pyramid…
While this is quite a specific structural template, it has its uses across the board of writing fiction. The idea of the central reversal, a rise, and a fall can really give an emotional hit to a narrative, especially if you have a relatable and sympathetic character in mind. Even Lady Macbeth, who essentially convinces her husband to commit regicide, is doing so out of misguided love for him. We can kind of understand that, and there’s satisfaction in seeing the story resolve itself, even if it is tragic. This pyramid structure really lets you explore the classic human pattern of desire and denial, and what happens when you lose yourself in pursuit of something impossible or wrong.
It also provides a helpful way to think of your novel in the sense that each scene needs to be one side of the pyramid – your characters are either pushing the boundaries to breaking point, or they’re suffering the consequences and likely making things worse. This can help you balance your narrative.
You could also skew the pyramid if you don’t want to go full-Gustav. In this interpretation, the catastrophe becomes more a resolution of sorts where your character survives the disaster in a slightly better shape than they started out despite their misbehaviour – they learn their lesson. Obviously, this was not the case for poor old Macbeth who really should have been happy with what he had.
There are more modern ways of approaching structure that you might be interested in reading about, be that using character arc templates or thinking about different methods of plotting, but Freytag’s Pyramid is a classic and seamless way of structuring a tragedy. If it worked for Shakespeare it can work for us, right?
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