“Freytag’s Pyramid” lists the seven basic elements of fiction writing in chronological order: (1) exposition, (2) inciting incident, (3) rising action (conflicts), (4) climax (at the top of the pyramid), (5) falling action, (6) resolution, and (7) denouement. It’s important for the writer to understand that Freytag was not listing a set of rules but rather a compilation of observable structural elements present in virtually all fiction writing. They constitute the common ingredients of storytelling.
The distinction is important to the writer. Rules are compliance driven, the items on a list to be checked off; for example a pilot’s pre-flight checklist or the surgical nurse’s inventory to assure some piece of gauze or a clamp has not been left inside the patient.
Rather than rules, Freytag’s list of the fundamental common elements of fiction serve as the structural skeleton at the heart of a story—reliably ever-present but the location and precise contents of which are individually subjective. Rather than rules, the writer should consider them as tools to help construct an effective piece of fiction—one that grabs and holds a reader’s attention and carries him or her from the beginning through to the end. If readers sense the absence of any one of these fundamental elements, they likely will find what they are reading lacking and move on.
As you construct a story its skeletal elements become lost in the tissues and organs and skin you’ve added to create the completed body, but they are what holds it together. That’s what Freytag’s elements do.
Rules attempt to objectify complicated processes by breaking them down into more bite-sized pieces. For example, a cell’s structure as diagrammed in a biology textbook has sharp lines that clearly distinguish the borders of its various parts, which are neatly labeled. Under a microscope, however, there are no labels and the actual parts of a living cell appear considerably less distinct—mushy even. It becomes difficult to distinguish the boundary lines of the cell’s constituent parts.
Like a living cell, the story you are writing is considerably more organic and subjective—mushy under the microscope. The pieces of a story become blended, less distinct at their edges as the subtleties of details and transitions are added and mixed together to become a whole. Like making a cake from scratch, the ingredients are distinct, just sitting there in their containers on the tabletop, but as you blend them together, they combine into batter. If you try to maintain each element as distinctly separate, your story becomes less like smooth batter and remains lumpy. It simply won’t flow and certainly won’t bake up right.
To a reader or literature student, Freytag’s elements serve as the checklist of what to find in an analysis of a story, like locating the parts of a cell under the microscope. To a writer, however, the listed elements serve as the constituent ingredients of story to be blended together. From this perspective, awareness of and sensitivity to Freytag’s pyramid becomes an invaluable aid to the writer as s/he nurses an idea—the sudden brainstorm or flash of inspiration—into a completed story.
Once you get into writing a story, it’s easy to forget where the original idea came from, but one given remains: rarely do story ideas arrive in a complete package of chronologically arranged parts. Stories start out as fragments of action that need to be fitted into a complete story held together by Freytag’s seven elements.
Brainstorms of story ideas inevitably arrive as explosions of action or conflict that structurally belong toward the top left side of Freytag’s pyramid. An ending may come to mind, but rarely do we see the beginning in any great detail. Beginnings generally have to be constructed. This is not a weakness in your thinking but part of a quite logical process. Action is the heart of any story, and it’s the image of action that typically serves as the catalyst behind brainstorms in the first place.
Once the rising action (conflict) is visualized, you merely have to apply techniques of reverse engineering and back the action of the brainstorm or idea up to find or create a strong and effective exposition and inciting incident(s) that will dovetail into your already conceived rising action. Story ideas always arrive with the horse before the cart! A writer has to put things in order and Freytag’s elements can help do that.
So an idea explodes in your mind and you enjoy the experience, but, ultimately, you have to come up with a beginning. Think about a story idea you’ve had. I’d bet that it didn’t arrive fully developed. Your mountain climber didn’t start with a wild hair during a boring office meeting, or getting ready at basecamp, or saying goodbye to his wife. It started with Joe—played by you—on the shear face of the mountain, perhaps a thousand feet below the summit and facing certain death on the rocks three thousand feet below. He looks over his shoulder at the unexpected storm moving in very quickly as he contemplates the discovery that he brought along inferior quality pitons that likely won’t hold his weight and suddenly realizes they were a gift from his wife. Can’t climb down, but does he have the time to make it to that craggy outcropping a few hundred feet above that might offer protection from the elements? Sleet is starting to pelt him. Any free-climb path to that ledge is going to get very icy, very fast if he can’t do something about the pitons.
The conflicts come into focus—man against the mountain, nature against man, man against the clock, man against some deadly plot. It just takes some backing up from the flash-of-inspiration scene on the mountainside to find where the inciting incident belongs and what it might be. By then you will have primed your mind to come up the ingredients of the story’s exposition where the characters start to come to life. Their thoughts and actions will lead you to an appropriate inciting incident that carries the action forward to connect with your original flash of inspiration.
Creating story from an idea is similar to when you have a vivid dream. After waking up, you inevitably try to figure out where the dream came from. When you have a brainstorm for a story, it’s a similar process, only you have to invent where the story would best start.
This is where the second writer’s list plays a key role in your story development. Freytag’s elements are the file folders; you have to insert the contents. The second list, which consists of the Five W’s & H—Who, What, When, Why, Where, and How—will help with that. Come up with the answers to those questions for each of Freytag’s elements and you’ll soon have compiled the details that put life into your original flash of action and fatten your Freytag file folders. The questions will also help when you find yourself stuck on the ledge of someplace and not certain which direction to take. The questions force you to review the key ingredients of each step, starting with your exposition and on into your inciting incident. Your answers will provide focus on which “horses of action” will best pull your story’s cart forward.
This internal Q and A process will flush out the details of your characters, their actions, the location, and the all-important inciting incident that will pull a reader into your story and give it life and credibility and have the readers hooked by the time you take them to the rising action. Let’s say you like the idea that your mountain-climbing protagonist has a potentially lethal spouse. The Five W’s & H will help you come up with the details about the climb—from the mountain, its location, the other members of the climb team (too far away to help), and the underlying reason(s) that your protagonist is here in the first place. The questions will also help you decide where the wife’s plot first got started—a boyfriend perhaps, or to keep the protagonist from discovering her involvement in something far more sinister (Subplots!). Did she add a few million in insurance coverage on her husband’s life insurance policy a year ago or perhaps she has a boyfriend who is a crooked insurance agent who plans to kill her once she collects on the policy. He plans to stuff the cash into an exercise bag and slip away to the islands.
You can see how the two lists work in tandem. Freytag’s helps you keep your story linearly focused, and working through the list of W’s and H generates the details that bring your story to life.
But the two lists, although very helpful, do not comprise the complete story telling kit. A good story, well written, will create a movie in your readers’ minds. For the writer to achieve that, s/he needs to think visually about the answers to each question, and actually see the story, its characters, scenes, and actions, and then select the words that best paint the scenes into reality for your reader—in Cinemascope and Technicolor and Surround Sound. Lists won’t help you with those. You need skills of narration and dialogue, internal and external.
Joe reached down and grabbed a piton from the looped collection hanging from his belt and nestled its point into the narrow crevice—a crack in the granite that opened perhaps thousands of years ago when some temblor rattled the mountain. Once the piton was slightly wedged into the crack, he flipped his wrist in a well-practiced maneuver and his hammer jumped up and landed in his thick-gloved hand. He liked the showy move, which he practiced frequently. It gave him a sense of control and surgical synchronization. The perfection of the flip of his wrist was as reliable as the ting the tempered steel of a piton made when you first started to drive it into a crevice. But this time, there was no ting. The missing sound didn’t at first register; not until he hit the piton a second time. It returned a sound more like a six-penny nail being driven into a two-by-four. “What gives?” he thought. He pulled another from his loop and inspected it, something he should have done during bivouac at base camp, or when he was packing his gear, but didn’t because they were new, a good luck gift from his beloved Jane. The piton lacked the usual markings of its manufacturer. The lack of quality was glaring in comparison to the pitons he normally used. Didn’t Jane say they were the same brand?
“She’s always trying to save money,” he tells himself. “But why would she cut corners on these? She knows how important they are.”
Funny thing about being in a deadly dangerous situation with few if any options; your mind starts to run scenarios if not race about fully amok. You see and feel things that are not true. But sometimes you see things that are. Aspects of your life come into very sharp focus. He shouldn’t have used so many of his original supply of pitons first. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he looked up to estimate the distance to the outcrop and then over his shoulder to calculate when the full force of the storm would slam into the mountain, and him.
First he needed to think about survival. If he survived, then he’d think about the pitons. But thoughts of why slapped him in the face along with the wind-driven sleet that announced the storm. He needed to make these pitons work.
“Think about what to do now,” he yelled at himself. “Now! Now!”
He’d think about Jane’s potentially deadly intentions later . . . if there were a later.
First you have a character in a tight jamb—your brainstorm. Then you back up a bit to find the potential facets of exposition and the inciting incident(s) that will work to kick off the action that has the protagonist in the fix in which he finds himself. Ideas ping-pong back and forth between the character’s situation and the beginning exposition and events that put him there. An inventory of facts and alternatives mount and you start to pick and choose from them those that will best work.
By understanding how the process works, and the elements of a story’s structure, and how to interrogate yourself, backing up from the beginning of an idea to a beginning of a story becomes less arduous. Once you understand how something works, you can focus on making it work better for you.
Armed with these two lists you’ll soon find that nursing story from an idea becomes easier, but it’s also easy to suddenly find yourself dangling off the shear side of a mountain trying to figure out how save your story idea. But with a little practice you will gather the confidence that you can build on. Just remember to check your pitons before you start to climb into your story.