Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Plotting Smarter with Freytag's Pyramid

I am not one of those writers who outlines everything. I despise outlines. I feel like it's more work to write a decent outline than it is to hammer out fifteen pages in an hour. I thought I would never grow to appreciate outlining--until I learned all about Freytag's Pyramid.

Freytag's Pyramid, for those of you who are a little confused, is a pattern used to display the conflict progression in a story. Most of you have seen it before, even if you didn't know what it was called. The pyramid looks like this:

It's fine if that picture doesn't do it for you. It doesn't do it for me, either. Let me explain what all those words mean for the sake of your novel or short story.



  1. Exposition. This term refers to the start of a story. The exposition lets reader's get a sense of the setting, characters, atmosphere, and sometimes even the conflict of a piece. In order to move from the exposition, there must be some kind of inciting incident that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve.

  2. Rising action. This part of the plot revolves around complications. Obstacles from the antagonist, minor characters, or other elements such as nature prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her goals. More conflicts arise, and tension mounts.

  3. Climax. The point of highest drama in a literary work. Everything that has been simmering under the surface comes to a head during the climax. It is also referred to as the "turning point" because it changes everything for the protagonist--for better or worse.

  4. Falling Action. The danger has passed, the climax ends, and the main conflict begins to wrap itself up.

  5. Denouement. Also called the resolution, the denouement refers to the end of the piece, after all the loose ends have been tied up into a bow. Side conflicts are resolved and the characters in the story return to their normal lives, somehow different than they were at the exposition.

See? Geometry can be exciting, even to fiction writers. But how can you use Freytag's Pyramid as a plotting tool? This is a loose outline I compiled using this technique:

  1. Sharon Prince is a struggling actress searching for work in New York City. She's been living in Manhattan for a couple of months, and she has yet to find a job. When the rent for her apartment goes up, she realizes she has to become a waitress.

  2. Sharon waits tables at a diner in Times Square. She doesn't get paid much, but at least she's making money. A customer leaves her a massive tip one night. She thinks she will finally be able to make rent.

  3. On her back back to the apartment, Sharon accidentally leaves her wallet on the subway. She's sure someone has stolen it. She breaks down crying on the front stoop of her building.

  4. A man from the subway approaches Sharon and tries to comfort her. He hands her the wallet she thought had been stolen. He tells her that she is too pretty to cry. She tells him what's happening. He suggests she attend a casting call taking place the next morning.

  5. Sharon gives the guy her number and skips up the steps. She pays her rent and returns to her apartment to practice her audition.

As you can see, this outline is rough, but it should be enough to get my point across. The great thing about Freytag's Pyramid is that it allows you to get the sense of security from the outline while allowing for some breathing room. The next time you want to plot your story, experiment with this simple technique.

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