Monday, January 23, 2012

Walk Like an Egyptian: Plotting and Pyramids

Freytag's Pyramid by Sky Sloderbeck
Figure 1

Every story needs structure. In the way that a good bra holds up the girls, a good plot structure holds up your story. And without that underwire and cotton support your story becomes saggy, flopping all over the place like two puppies trying to escape from a sack.

One of the definitive examples for plotting your story is Freytag's Pyramid, a model that, when viewed in graphic-form, looks suspiciously similar to that good bra, albeit much more pointy. Freytag's Pyramid was created by German playwright, Gustav Freytag and is from his study of the five-act dramatic structure called Die Technik des Dramas (1863).

In Chapter 2, Freytag outlines the five acts:
  1. 1. Einleitung (Introduction, i.e. Exposition)

  2. 2. Steigerung (Increase, i.e. Rising Action)

  3. 3. H√∂henpunkt (Peak, i.e. Climax)

  4. 4. Fall oder Umkehr (Case or Conversion, i.e. Falling Action)

  5. 5. Katastrophe (No translation necessary, but modern triangles describe this act as the d√©nouement or conclusion)
These acts are then visualized as a triangle or pyramid which graphically present the acts in a way that reflects their role in a story (see Figure 1). This pyramid reflects the necessary structure of your basic plot. You introduce your readers to an arc, you ramp up the suspense so that the reader is on the edge of his or her seat, and then you present the climax, giving the reader a chance to peak. That peak, or climax, is the place where your reader is finally able to find a release for the suspense and tension that you've been building in them. I am trying very hard here to not devolve into the world of sexual metaphor, but it's actually a very apt comparison. Though this means that the Falling Action is the "afterglow" part and the Conclusion would be the part where you either fall asleep in each other's arms, or you gnaw off your own arm and sneak out before the sun comes up.

Twilight Freytag's Pyramid by Sky Sloderbeck (Small)
Figure 2
As a writer, you are not limited to just a single pyramid, either. In fact, the best stories, if mapped out on a Freytag's Pyramid, look very much like a mountain range (see Figure 2). Think about a good horror story: One Rising Action might be where the reader sees the hand reaching slowly out from under the bed towards the ankle of the sleeping co-ed; the related Climax could be where the hand grabs, but the co-ed turns in her sleep and the hand just misses her. Coming down from that climax, you will probably not want to take your reader all the way back to a calm and relaxed state, but you need to offer that initial release followed by a Falling Action and some semblance of a conclusion. Then you would introduce another scene where there can be a Rising Action-Climax-Falling Action-Conclusion and, if you play your reader right, you can keep bringing them up and partially back down the pyramids over and over until you get to the final climax...

... and that is the point where the reader finally feels that exhausted, fulfilled sense of relief.

To wrap up, just remember, your story needs a good support bra and you need to sex up your readers. Or something like that.

2 February 2013 Note: When trying to fix some site problems and port it to a new host, Figures 1 and 2 were lost. I found them again via Google, but the sites that archived them had small copies. I apologize for the low-res, hard to read pyramids.

Exercise: Take a story that you've written or are currently writing and map it using Freytag's Pyramid. If you don't have your own story, feel free to use any other story you'd like. I'd love to see your mapping (either in graphic or written form) in the comments.


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