Do any search on story structure, and you will inevitably come up with the Fichtean Curve, one of the most basic and fundamental forms of plotting.
But what is the Fichtean Curve? How can authors use it to plot better books? Is it complicated? Because even the name sounds a bit complex.
Thankfully, the Fichtean Curve is beautifully simple, and you will find at the core of almost every single piece of commercial fiction, as well as a lot of classics and literary books as well.
- What the Fichtean Curve is
- Who created it
- How you can incorporate it into your creative writing
- Examples of the Fichtean Curve
Table of contents
And if you like this article, I also recommend my comprehensive list of story structures, and I also highly recommend Plottr, a plotting tool for authors that incorporates this and many other narrative structures.
What Is the Fichtean Curve?
The Fichtean Curve is a simple narrative device used to describe a good story. Is usually split into three distinct parts:
- Rising action
- The climax
- Falling action
Of these three, rising action is the most prominent, and makes up the bulk of your story. You can visually represent the Fichtean Curve in a graph like this:
For rising action, which takes approximately two thirds of your book, you need to start increasing the tension almost immediately at the start of your book (keeping exposition to a minimum), and continue to increase that tension through a series of crises. The number of crises needed will depend on the length of your book and the story you are trying to tell. For example, a short story may have only one or two, but a full novel may have 4-7.
The climax comes at the height of your attention, a.k.a. the crisis to end all others. It is the tipping point that you have been building up to.
Falling action is basically every loose end that you need to tie up before the book ends, but after the final climax. It should relieve the reader of tension, and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.
Who Invented the Fichtean Curve?
The Fichtean Curve was postulated by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction, which was released in 1983.
While the basic concepts of rising action, climax, and falling action had long existed before John Gardner, he was the first to compile these many ideas on plot structure into a single, simple framework.
And while the Fichtean Curve can apply to almost any story, it is particularly suited to commercial fiction and genres such as mystery, thriller, and fantasy. It beautifully shows in a conveniently simple way, how a story builds on itself to reach a satisfying conclusion for a reader.
So now that we understand the basics, let's dive deep into each major section of the Fichtean Curve…
Step 1: Rising Action
According to the Fichtean model, every story should ramp up the tension almost immediately as soon as the story begins. Then, the story is presented with a series of crises or conflict. The first of these crises is the inciting incident.
But even before the inciting incident, you want to build tension. This is usually done by having a main character who want something very much, but for whatever reason can not get it.
Nevertheless, you should get to the inciting incident right away, and once that happens, the rest of your rising action comes with one crisis over another.
With each new crisis, the hero faces bigger and better obstacles, each one of which should raise the stakes, become more personal to the protagonist, and progress the story towards the final climax.
Rising action can take many forms in many different genres, for example:
- Mystery: each lead, dead end, or close call, can be a crisis.
- Romance: a crisis could be a series of dates that go badly, or any of the problems faced by a new couple.
- Fantasy: as a hero grows in magic or talent, they face numerous stumbling blocks, and get themselves in trouble every time their skills grow.
- Thriller/horror: every time the protagonist thinks they are safe, the killer finds them again, or they are faced with a new danger that had an existed previously.
You can take the same approach with many different genres, but this should give you an idea of what they look like for some of the big ones.
Step 2: the Climax
While the rising action makes up the bulk of the story, the climax is equally important.
The climax is the pinnacle of the story. An action-based genre might make this a huge fight, but it could also be something more cerebral, such as a big reveal, a plot twist, or a huge loss.
Note that your final climax should be echoed by the crises that came before. Every crisis should foreshadow the final conflict, as this will add deeper emotional weight and satisfaction to this conclusion.
Additionally, if every crisis is building towards the climax, you are actually preparing that character for this final confrontation.
The climax comes towards the end of the story, and together with the falling action section, takes up Act III or the final third of your plot.
Pro tip: the climax doesn't have to be a victory. In fact, some of the most resonant and satisfying climaxes are tragedies (think any of the tragedies written by Shakespeare).
Step 3: Falling Action
Lastly, when the climax is over, we descend into falling action. This is a moment where we are given a reprieve from the mounting tension of the story, conflict is reduced, and we essentially breathe out much faster than we breathed in.
By this point, the hero has endured the climax (successfully or not), and it is time to wrap up any of the loose threads of the narrative.
Sometimes, there is very little wrap up. For example, at the climax of The Karate Kid, there is a lot of cheering as Daniel LaRusso defeats his opponent, and Mr. Miyagi looks on in pride at his student. You don't need to know more than this, only that the student won and the master is proud. And so that is exactly where the movie ends.
On the flipside, the Lord of the Rings films (the books are little different) are infamous for their multiple endings because there are so many narrative threads to tie up.
But the purpose of the falling action is to tie up all loose ends, emphasize the theme of the story, and show how the hero has been impacted by the events of the plot.
Examples of the Fichtean Curve in Action
Let’s take a look at a few stories using the Fichtean Curve:
The Wizard of Oz
- Rising Action Crisis 1: A tornado sweeps Dorothy away over the rainbow
- Rising Action Crisis 2: She is threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West
- Rising Action Crisis 3: She meets the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, all of whom have their own needs
- Rising Action Crisis 4: The Wicket Witch slows them down
- Rising Action Crisis 5: The Wizard of Oz needs the broom of the Wicked Witch before he can help
- Rising Action Crisis 6: The flying monkeys capture Dorothy and take her to the Witch
- Climax: Dorothy and her companions melt the Witch
- Falling Action: Dorothy and her friends all get what they were searching for, they meet the Wizard of Oz, and Dorothy gets to go home.
Star Wars: A New Hope
- Rising Action Crisis 1: The droids have to leave a besieged spaceship and come into the possession of Luke Skywalker
- Rising Action Crisis 2: R2-D2 runs away and Luke is waylaid by sand people in the search.
- Rising Action Crisis 3: Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed and Luke decides to leave his home
- Rising Action Crisis 4: Luke and his companions are attacked as they try to leave Tatooine
- Rising Action Crisis 5: Luke and his companions are forced to land on the Death Star and avoid capture
- Rising Action Crisis 6: They rescue the princess, but Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed
- Climax: In the final battle, Luke must use what he has learned to destroy the Death Star
- Falling Action: The rebels celebrate Luke’s victory
The Lion King
- Rising Action Crisis 1: Simba learns that there are dark things beyond their borders when he visits the Elephant Graveyard.
- Rising Action Crisis 2: Mufasa is killed and Simba is forced to leave his home in exile.
- Rising Action Crisis 3: Nala finds a grown-up Simba and confronts him about leaving his home and abandoning them.
- Rising Action Crisis 4: After confronting Rafiki and the ghost of his father, Simba chooses to go home.
- Climax: Simba confronts his uncle Scar, ultimately resulting in Scar’s death.
- Falling Action: Simba takes up his rightful place as King, and the circle of life continues.
How Can You Use the Fichtean Curve?
The Fichtean Curve is known for having a fast pace, with each crisis building on the last, leading to one big climax.
As such, the Fichtean Curve is ideally suited for mystery and thriller stories, which are known for having a fast-paced plot.
However, as has already been mentioned, this Fichtean approach is suitable to almost all modern novels. You will even find it in a lot of literary classics as well, such as Moby Dick, Hamlet, etc.
Even in fantasy, where the genre is known to take it's time, you can still have a separate Fichtean Curve for each point of view character. Not only will this keep your readers engaged with each character, but it makes for an incredibly engaging fantasy read.
As with any story structure, the most important thing is to experiment and see if it is right for you. Try outlining your novel and seeing if the basic beats of the Fichtean Curve work for your story. If not, try outlining with a different narrative structure.
A great tool to help you plot your novel is Plottr, and outlining software built specifically for authors who need help plotting the novels.
A great feature about Plottr is that they have pre-built templates for a number of different plotting structures, including the Fichtean Curve, but also many others like Freytag's Pyramid, the Hero's Journey, and the Three Act Structure. So basically, if you want a guide that will hold your hand through the entire process, making it much easier for you, then I recommend you check Plottr out.
The Fichtean Curve: Final Thoughts
Ultimately, I find the Fichtean Curve to be a bit basic, but also fundamental to plotting as a whole.
If you are a writer, particularly a beginner writer who wants to understand other, more complex story structures, then the Fichtean Curve is one that you should definitely start with.