Freytag’s Pyramid – A Complete Guide | Blaze

Freytag’s Pyramid is a classic representation of dramatic structure. It helps us to understand the overall plot arc that we see in most storytelling, making it a great framework for students and writers as they outline their own pieces. 

Just as relevant today as it was when German novelist Gustav Freytag published his Technique of The Drama in 1863, Freytag’s Pyramid taps into something universal—profound yet commonplace—to describe how a skilled storyteller builds suspense, creates a climax, and then releases tension with a resolution.

Just like how Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey archetype spans from the ancient works of The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey to countless contemporary stories, Freytag’s Pyramid is as equally applicable to the Athenian tragedies by Sophocles as it is the works of Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. K. Rowling.

Freytag’s pyramid is not a complete formula for a captivating drama, nor is it a hard-and-fast rule set. It’s a helpful tool that we can use to analyze dramatic structure and that can aid writers in their own creative process by providing an outline that they can then expand in their own way by adding color, shape, and texture. 

This is everything you need to know about Freytag’s Pyramid.

The Five Steps of Freytag’s Pyramid

“That the technique of drama is nothing absolute and unchangeable scarcely needs to be stated,” writes Freytag to introduce his book. “Since Aristotle established a few of the highest laws of dramatic effect, the culture of the human race has grown more than two thousand years older… the spiritual and moral nature of men, the relation of the individual to the race and to the highest forces of earthly life, the idea of freedom, the conception of the being of Divinity, have experienced great revolutions… Our notion of the beautiful and the artistically effective has developed.”

Freytag's Pyramid

Despite these revolutions and developments, Freytag traces the same five steps of dramatic structure from the plays of Ancient Greeks to those of his contemporaries: Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe. These five steps are:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Resolution

Now let’s dive into each step and see how they fit together to create a compelling story arc.

Exposition

We begin our tale with the exposition. In this introductory phase, we meet the main character, we learn about the setting, and we set the stage for what’s to come. While some authors revel in the world-building aspect of the exposition, others curtail it as much as possible so that they can get to the action. 

J. R. Tolkien, for instance, spends dozens of pages with On Hobbits at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings before he even begins to touch on the main plot of his story. Other writers offer little by way of introduction, preferring to throw their readers or viewers into the action either directly or by starting at their story’s middle, in medias res, such as in Breaking Bad or The Odyssey. These stories then often circle back to provide more background by using techniques like flashbacks.

The most important part of the exposition, at least from the perspective of dramatic structure, is the inciting incident, also called the exciting force or, in Freytag’s words, the complication. This is the moment when the hero is called to action. It’s the event that sets the protagonist's journey into motion.

Oedipus is given a troubling fortune. Walter White is diagnosed with cancer. Frodo must take the one ring to Mordor.

Rising Action

The second step of Freytag’s Pyramid, rising action, is usually the lengthiest part of any story. This is where the protagonist moves towards the climax and tension builds for the audience. They face setbacks, overcome obstacles, meet other characters along the way, and learn more about their adversary.

Freytag calls this section the rising movement, but the idea is the same: once we’ve captured the audience’s attention with the exciting force, we need to give them more reasons to care about the outcome, show them what’s at stake, and give the protagonist a chance to undergo character development. 

In Breaking Bad, Walt steals lab equipment from his school, begins manufacturing methamphetamine, and starts to deal with the complications of leading a double life. In LOTR, Frodo joins the fellowship, traverses through dangerous territories, and gradually becomes obsessed with the ring.

Climax

You know it when you see it. This is the at-the-edge-of-your seat moment. It’s the final clash between the forces of good and evil, the scene where everything is on the line, or the moment when the tragic hero realizes the error of their ways yet it’s too late to turn back.

According to Freytag, the climax is a reflection point in the story. If things have been going well for the characters so far, their fates will take a turn for the worst, or vice versa. The climax is the story’s main turning-point.

The main point of departure that our modern understanding of Freytag’s Pyramid makes from his original is that we usually consider the climax to be near the end of the story, whereas Freytag thought of it as the mid-point. It’s also not unusual for today’s storytellers to include mini-climaxes on the way to one large finale.

Falling Action

After the climax, the falling action begins to wrap up the story by spelling out the consequences that result from the previous conflict. In a tragedy, things will continue to get worse for the protagonist, while in a comedy they will start to improve.

This is one of the hardest parts to write because the writer has to tie up loose ends, expand into broader themes, and steer the story towards its conclusion. According to Freytag, authors should follow two basic rules at this stage:

  1. Limit the number of characters involved
  2. Use fewer scenes than the rising action

There could be some suspense at this stage, such as the possibility of a reversal of fortunes. 

Resolution

The final stage of Freytag’s Pyramid is the end of the story. This is where tensions are finally released, where justice is served, or where the ultimate consequences of tragedy are fulfilled and the audience is left with a feeling of catharsis. 

Freytag himself devised his dramatic structure to explicitly deal with tragedy, and so he calls this section the “catastrophe.” However, modern interpretations apply this concluding component of the dramatic structure to comedies as well.

That’s why some prefer the French term “denouement” to this section, although Freytag never used the word. Essentially, it refers to the final untangling or resolution of the plot that ties up loose ends, answers the audience's questions, and leaves them fulfilled.

The History of Dramatic Structure

The first known work to explicate dramatic structure, at least as far as the Western canon is concerned, is Aristotle’s Poetics. The Ancient Greek philosopher sought “to treat Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem.” Keep in mind that he takes poetry to mean any form of creative storytelling, including Homeric epics, tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, and comedies by Aristophanes.

In his discussion of plot, he writes that “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Perhaps not the most stunning insight, but a start nonetheless. 

More interestingly, he concludes that “the plot, being an imitation of action, must imitate one action and that whole, the structure union of the parts being such that, if any of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.” This idea, known as Aristotle’s Unified Plot Structure, shows how the parts of a dramatic structure are so closely intertwined to form a cohesive whole. It became central to the development of Freytag’s Pyramid.

Thousands of years passed before Freytag took up his pen in the 19th century to give a more thorough definition to the concept of dramatic structure. As he points out in his work, a lot changed during that interim, yet he still observed the same foundational story arcs appearing from his contemporaries.

In the generations since Freytag lived, our society’s development has only accelerated. This is just as true for cultural aspects like storytelling as it for technology and industry. While Freytag’s Pyramid continues to maintain relevance, we’ve expanded upon it to include types of stories other than tragedies, in addition to iterating on the concept of dramatic structure in general to come up with different types of story arcs.

Modern dramas may, for instance, end without a resolution. Avante-garde drama and works of theater of the absurd, such as Waiting for Godot, defy dramatic structure altogether. Other works form explosive or radial patterns, while some may spiral or even turn in ways altogether unexpected. The point is that, though most stories—especially mainstream ones—will likely follow the dramatic structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, doing so is neither necessary nor as prevalent in 21st century media.

We must also point out that defining dramatic structure by Freytag’s Pyramid is also a euro-centric view. Storytelling is a global phenomenon, and different cultures approach it in different ways. 

For instance, many stories from East Asia follow the Kishotenketsu dramatic structure, a Japanese term that means “introduction, development, change, conclusion.” Notable differences include the fact that neither a climax nor a resolution are necessary, and the change is less of a plot twist and more of an alteration—either in the story’s world or within the character(s)--that drives the story towards its conclusion.

This is just one of many examples of dramatic structure outside of Freytag’s pyramid. African griot storytelling, the chiastic structure found in the Torah, Quran, and Bible, as well as the traditional Andean Harawi are all examples of how people around the world structure their stories in different ways.

Freytag’s Pyramid and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Now let’s see Freytag’s Pyramid in action by aligning a couple popular stories with the dramatic structure. We’ll start with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone) by J. K. Rowling.

We begin with the exposition: we see young Harry living a miserable life with the Dursleys, his bedroom a cupboard under the stairs and his cousin a constant antagonist. We get a glimpse of his powers and potential when they visit a local zoo and Harry uses his magic to talk to a snake and remove the glass that holds it captive.

The exciting force begins as owls start to arrive, each carrying a letter addressed to Harry Potter. The Dursleys go so far as to journey to a remote island to avoid the barrage of mail, but Hagrid tracks them down and delivers a line that pushes the protagonist into action: “You’re a wizard, Harry.”

The story then moves into the rising action phase. While Harry is exploring the wizarding world, making friends, learning to fly a broomstick, and taking classes at Hogwarts, the tension of the mystery surrounding the Sorcerer’s Stone begins to build. The protagonists learn more about the stone and the evil wizard Voldemort, going so far as to even have a direct encounter with him in the forest outside the school.

The action rises until Harry eventually finds himself face-to-face with Voldemort himself. In this climactic moment, Harry prevents his nemesis from possessing the stone and defeats him in the first of what will be many encounters over the course of the series.

After the climax, we have a brief period of falling action. Dumbledore, Hogwart’s wise headmaster, speaks to Harry while he recovers in the hospital. He answers questions for both the hero and the audience. The effect is a tying of loose ends and an easing of tension.

Finally, we have the resolution. At the year-end feast, Dumbledore awards a generous amount of points to Gryffindor for the heroics displayed by Harry and his friends, earning them the house cup. This moment of resolution and triumph lingers as Harry bids goodbye to his friends and heads onto the train to go home for summer.

Freytag’s Pyramid: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Our second example comes from a classic American novel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In this exposition, we meet the main cast of characters, including Jay Gatsby and his love interest Daisy, and we are introduced to the setting: 1920’s New York. We learn that Gatsby and Daisy used to be lovers, though they had to split up because Gatsby had no money at the time. Gatsby then devoted his life to accumulating wealth.

The exciting force comes when we find out that Daisy is unhappy in her current marriage because her husband, Tom, is cheating on her. Gatsby, who lives across the water from them, looks longingly across the bay at a green light that illuminates Daisy’s house. Perhaps he has some hope.

The action rises as we view lavish parties at Gatsby’s house, and we meet Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. Tension rises as Gatsby is able to arrange a private teatime between himself and Daisy. He shows her his extravagant shirt collection, a symbol of his wealth, and she tells him how much she loves them. They begin to have an affair.

Eventually, we reach a climactic moment when the truth comes out. Gatsby and Tom have a showdown over Daisy’s love, and ultimately Daisy admits that she loves Tom, not Gatsby. Thinking that he’s won the ordeal, Tom agrees to let Daisy drive Gatsby home in his car. On the way, they have an accident, and she kills Myrtle, Tom’s mistress. 

The resolution—in this case, the catastrophe—comes shortly after. Myrtle’s husband tracks down Gatsby’s car, finds the man floating in his pool, and shoots him dead on the spot. Hardly anyone shows up to Gatsby’s funeral, showing just how futile his shallow attempts at grandeur really were.

Conclusion

There’s a reason that so many great stories follow the dramatic structure outlined by Freytag’s Pyramid. It’s a formula that works. It’s infinitely adaptable, and, if implemented correctly, it’s always satisfying. Whether you’re writing a book, a play, a film, or even just want to tell a good story over dinner or drinks, try using Freytag’s pyramid as a framework and build from there.

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