Freytag’s Pyramid: Definition and Examples of Dramatic Structure

Welcome to this in-depth look at Freytag's Pyramid, a narrative story structure commonly used in tragedies and many other stories.

Freytag's Pyramid is one of the oldest story structures that we cover on the site, making it a unique approach to structuring your story.

But how does it differ from other conventional story structures? How is it similar? Let us break it down for you.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What the Freitag pyramid is
  2. How you can use in your writing
  3. A detailed breakdown of all five stages of Freytag's Pyramid
  4. How it differs from modern storytelling techniques

Side note: We recommend Plottr as our top plotting tool to fabricate stories using Freytag's Pyramid and many other Story Structures. If you purchase Plottr, we do get a small commission from that, but there is no extra cost and every bit goes to the coffee fund. More on Plottr later.

What Is Freytag's Pyramid?

Freytag's Pyramid was invented by Gustav Freytag in the mid-19th century. He was a big fan of classical Greek tragedy as well as Shakespearean drama (these were considered the “greats” at the time).

He argued that all of these great stories could be broken down into a simple structure that he constructed into a pyramid. The following diagram is taken from his original work:

Freytag's pyramid in the original book

The Freytag Pyramid has five stages that Freytag organized into five acts:

  • Act one: Exposition
  • Act two: Rising Action
  • Act three: Climax
  • Act four: Falling Action
  • Act five: Resolution or Catastrophe

What Are the Seven Elements of Freytag's Pyramid?

In addition to the five stages listed above, many modern-day constructions of Freytag's work will add two additional elements, resulting in seven overall:

  1. Exposition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Rising Action
  4. Climax
  5. Falling Action
  6. Resolution or Catastrophe
  7. Denouement

Together these make up the seven elements of Freytag's Pyramid, as postulated by modern analyses.

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Why Is Freytag's Pyramid Important?

Freytag's Pyramid is important because it is one of the earliest forms of story deconstruction that we have. It is also a brilliant resource for those who are writing tragedy, comedy in the classical tradition, or any other darker storyline where you really want to drive the tragic elements home.

Freytag's Pyramid does not perfectly fit most modern story structures, as it uses a five act structure instead of the more common three act structure, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't use it.

If you want to give your story an epic feel, consider using Freytag's Pyramid, as it was modeled after ancient classics of literature and theater. It's a great way to give your story a classical style.

What Are the Five Stages of Freytag's Pyramid?

freytag's pyramid graphic

The five main stages of Freytag's pyramid are:

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

Let's break each of these down one by one. We will also spend some time talking about the inciting incident and the denouement, both of which often pop up in modern renditions of Freytag's Pyramid, though they were not originally part of his initial analysis.

Act I: Exposition

The beginning of Freytag's Pyramid is all about exposition, or explaining what is going on.

In this section, you want to introduce the main characters, the setting, and the source of the conflict, and any promises that you plan to pay off later in the story.

Freytag also elaborates on a concept called Exciting Force, which he calls the “complication”. In modern storytelling techniques, we call this the “inciting incident”, which we will talk about in a second.

Chronology note: although Gustav Freytag never mentioned any concrete ideas like this, we recommend that the exposition should not take up more than 15% of your story.

Act I, Part II: Inciting Incident

While not a full stage in Freytag's original manuscript, many modern renditions of Freytag's Pyramid include the inciting incident as its own stage in the pyramid.

It is certainly one of the most important aspects of any story.

This is the moment that propels the character interaction, and is the first real point of conflict. It introduces what will be the central conflict of the entire story.

Chronology note: we recommend that the inciting incident happen roughly around the 15% mark, and not too much later.

Act II: Rising Action

Like many other models, Gustav Freytag has a section of “rising action”, where the stakes are raised, the tension increases, and the conflict reveals key elements of the story and our characters.

In short, things go from bad to worse.

To do this well, make sure all of your characters are introduced in this section, make sure each scene is driven by conflict, all of which builds towards the upcoming climax.

Note: while we frequently refer to this as rising action, especially in other similar models, Freytag referred to as “rising movement”.

Chronology note: since Freytag constructed this as a five act story, this takes place in the second act, which should run roughly between the 15% and 50% mark of your story.

Act III: Climax

In the framework outlined by Freytag, the climax takes place near the exact center of the story, as opposed to near the end like most modern stories.

In a classical tragedy, this is where everything begins to fall apart.

In a classical comedy, the characters actually start to see some improvement at this point.

So while this is not necessarily a climax in the sense that everything is coming to a head, it does act as a sort of reflection point, where we can contemplate how the story is been going so far, and completely turn it around.

Gustav Freytag referred to this as a point where the story suddenly becomes a mirror story, reflecting the opposite of what we have seen so far. This is great for self-reflective tragedies.

And indeed, Freytag put a lot of emphasis on this moment, calling it “the most important place of the structure; the action rises to this; the action falls away from this.”

Chronology note: this section should take place at the middle of your story, roughly at the 50% mark.

Act IV: Falling Action

But the climax is not the end. As we see, there is a period of falling action that takes place in Act IV.

Here we see a mirror reflection of the rising action, where everything begins to fall apart for the the protagonist, particularly in tragedy.

In comedy, the effect is reversed. Where things had been going badly, suddenly everything turns around and begins to work in the protagonist's favor.

This is a build up to the final catastrophe that is about to come, where we are supposed to prepare the reader for that catastrophe, and maybe even hint that there is a slim possibility that they might get out of this. This increases tension.

In fact, Gustav Freytag emphasized strongly that there was a clear need for this moment of respite, calling it “an old, unpretentious poetic device, to give the audience for a few moments a prospect of relief. This is done by means of a new slight, suspense.”

Chronology note: we recommend that this take place roughly between the 50% and 75% mark.

Act V: Resolution or Catastrophe

Gustav Freytag was mostly concerned with tragedy, which was among the highest form of art in his time, which is why he called this last stage “catastrophe”.

However, if you're writing a classical comedy, or any other type of story using Freytag's Pyramid, we may simply call this the resolution.

This is the moment when the central conflict is resolved, and the character has either succeeded or failed at their goal.

If this is a tragedy, then this is a moment of sadness, not just for the main character, but for all those around them.

This is a moment that we would, in modern days, call the climax, where everything comes to a head, but Freytag's Pyramid allows this to be a highly introspective moment. It allows us to continue the story's themes and leave us with something to think about.

Chronology note: this should take place roughly between the 75% and the 85% mark. Be sure to leave room for the denouement.

Act V, Part II: Dénouement

The dénouement is the last element of Freytag's Pyramid, though not one that he initially wrote about. It has since been added by subsequent models.

The dénouement is a opportunity to wrap up all of the remaining storylines and characters, showing the reader how far we have come from the ordinary world at the beginning, to where we are now.

In a tragedy, this is likely a moment for other characters surrounding the protagonist to ruminate on the nature of what happened.

In a classical comedy, this is the moment where everyone gets married.

Chronology note: this section should take up no more than the last 15% of your story. In many instances, it can be much shorter.

Examples of Freytag's Pyramid

As stated above, Freytag's Pyramid was mostly concerned with classical drama and Shakespearean tragedy, so let's start with one of those:

Hamlet

  • Exposition: the play opens introducing Hamlet and the other main characters. The political situation in Denmark is set, as well as the fact that Hamlet's father has died, and his mother has remarried his uncle Claudius. The inciting incident happens when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father.
  • Rising Action: as Hamlet pretends to be mad, he descends into actual madness. His uncle Claudius suspects him, and spies on him. Hamlet orchestrates a play to try and assess Claudius's guilt.
  • Climax: we learn for certain that Claudius did, in fact, murder Hamlet's father. Hamlet goes mad, and kills Polonius.
  • Falling Action: Hamlet is sent away for a time, Laertes returns from France in order to avenge the death of his father, and conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet. Ophelia goes mad and kills herself. When Hamlet returns, the stages are set for the catastrophe.
  • Catastrophe: the play ends with nearly all of the main characters dying, including Hamlet. The dénouement happens as Horatio remains alive to tell the invading Prince Fortinbras of Norway of what happened.

The Great Gatsby

  • Exposition: Nick, our central character, as well as other characters are introduced. The overall tone of the story is established.
  • Rising Action: Nick gets to know Gatsby and is fascinated by his lifestyle. Various events heighten the tension, including Nick hearing dark rumors about Gatsby, a car being crushed outside, Nick learning that Mr. Wolfsheim is a gambler, and that Gatsby is involved in some shady business.
  • Climax: at the height of summer, Tom and Gatsby fight over the relationship with Daisy. Daisy leaves the hotel, and is followed by Gatsby.
  • Falling Action: Daisy hits Myrtle with a car and Myrtle dies.
  • Catastrophe: George vows revenge on Gatsby, Tom and Daisy leave town, and George eventually kills Gatsby and then himself. The dénouement happens as Nick reminisces about what happened. A funeral is held for Gatsby, and very few people attend.

Freytag's Pyramid vs Modern Story Structure

Gustav Freytag penned his work in the 19th century, long before modern inventions of storytelling like film, television, radio, etc.

In his time, the predominant forms of storytelling were through poetry or prose, as well as theater.

And the most lauded works of literature at that time were the Greek classics and the works of William Shakespeare. So it is no surprise that this story structure models itself off of these stories.

But when you compare this to our modern-day storytelling, you will find a few things that modern storytellers do not have.

1. Most Modern Story Structures Are More Universal

Gustav Freytag was mostly talking about tragedy, and Freytag's Pyramid can be great to help you structure a tragic story.

Modern storytellers have created other story frameworks that are more universal, things like the heroes journey, the three act structure, etc. While these can be used for tragedies, they are better suited for stories with a net-positive change.

And in our modern day of obsession or verb formula and reproducibility, it is no wonder that our story structures have become far more generalized and universal.

2. Modern Stories Place the Climax Near the End

Most modern stories have a climax, just as Freytag's Pyramid does. But unlike Freytag's Pyramid, which places the climax at the center, today we prefer to put the climax closer to the end (roughly between the 75-85% mark).

This is consistent with the three act structure, where the climax is placed in act three.

In fact, what Gustav Freytag called the catastrophe is what we would call the climax.

3. Modern Stories Contain More Plot Elements

Today, we have a lot more names for certain plot elements that Gustav Freytag simply didn't know about because he wrote about story structure much earlier than most.

These include things like the inciting incident, the dénouement, the return, etc. many of these were made popular by other story structures such as the hero's journey.

That said, the similarities that Freytag's Pyramid has with modern story structure, despite the differences, is a credit to Gustav Freytag that he was able to come up with something so universal to the stories of his time.

4. Most Modern Stories Use the 3 Act Structure Instead of the 5 Act Structure

Film and television has made the three act structure the reigning king of broad story structures used today.

But that wasn't always the case. Shakespeare's plays, and the Freytag Pyramid model, all use the concept of a five act structure.

Indeed, five acts was the standard for a very long time.

Now many will argue that the five act structure is actually the same as a three act structure when it comes down to it, but there are a few differences between the two, most notably the placement of the climax.

To Use Freytag's Pyramid, or Not to Use Freytag's Pyramid?

So, should you use Freytag's Pyramid in your writing?

I believe this comes down to a question of genre. What kind of book or screenplay are you writing? 

If you are writing a tragedy, then Freytag's Pyramid might be a really helpful source to structure your story.

Even if you are not writing a tragedy, but you want to structure your story in a more classical style, then Freytag's Pyramid may be right for you.

But regardless of whether you use Freytag's Pyramid or not, I highly recommend you read up on it, because it can be a fascinating glimpse into the study of storytelling, particularly of classics that have come before.

If you want to use Freytag's Pyramid, we highly recommend Plottr as a way of helping you structure your story.

Plottr has templates for dozens of different storytelling techniques, including Freytag's Pyramid. It uses helpful prompts and guides to help you outline each scene in your story, each character that you need to build, etc.

It is also our choice for the best outlining software. 

Check Out Plottr Here


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