When discussing story and plot, it’s standard for creative writing tutors to introduce a diagram to illustrate the structure of a story. But which diagram should you follow? And how much can a drawing really teach you about structuring your narrative?
Video transcript follows below:
When discussing story and plot, it’s standard for creative writing tutors to introduce a diagram to illustrate the structure of a story. One of the most famous is derived from Freytag’s pyramid: along, up to a spike, down, along. We’ll come back to this.
I prefer this one: more of a ramp, followed by a plummet. That’s quite nice.
This one has a similar idea: woooooooooo weeee!
This one goes along for a bit then up up up and then it kind of leaves you hanging half way.
This one’s nice and colourful.
This one’s a straight arrow: I’ve no idea what’s going on here.
Here we’ve got a staircase thing going on. Up the stairs and weeeee!
This one goes up then way down, I’ve no idea what’s going on in this one.
This one’s great. It’s got a wee wibbly wobbly bit.
I don’t know what half these diagrams mean, but there are a few features that apply to most successful narratives, and people have been trying to define those features at least since Aristotle. In 1863, the German novelist Gustav Freytag conceived dramatic structure as a pyramid.
It’s upon his idea that this diagram is based. Here, much of the story is devoted to exposition and resolution. Once upon a time, readers and spectators had more patience. At the start of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo spends tens of thousands of words introducing a bishop who drops out of the story soon after we and he meet Jean Valjean. In late modernity, however, the world has sped up, and our attention spans have shortened. We want to be hooked within seconds. Many viewers will already have clicked away from this video, and you’re probably thinking of doing the same. So let me get to the point.
Modern narratives spend less time on set up and resolution. Everything exists within the story.
Looking at what’s left, you’re probably thinking ‘hang on: the climax doesn’t come in the middle!’ And you’re right. It comes at the end. And of course the escalation towards that climactic moment probably isn’t completely smooth; rather there are various incidents that bump up the tension along the way.
And just as we’ve lost patience with long intros, once the story’s over, these days we’re done. Plus, our postmodern cynicism combined with the commercial value of sequels means we’re now comfortable leaving our heroes in a state of mild tension. So let’s shorten the time devoted to the resolution.
So this is my diagram of story structure. Something happens to change the character’s lives – to interrupt the stasis. This is sometimes called the inciting incident, and it should usually occur as close to the start as possible. The inciting incident gives the protagonist some new objective. For instance, in my favourite book when I was wee, The Deeds of the Nameless Knight, the hero learns that a damsel is imprisoned in a tower and resolves to rescue her. There are impediments to him achieving his objective, which gives rise to conflict, and the conflict escalates until the tension between opposing forces is at breaking point, at which point there is a climactic battle and the story is resolved.
By ‘climax’, Freytag was actually referring to some big action that occurs, or some big piece of information that’s revealed, at the midpoint. The midpoint is a really big deal in screenwriting, and most films rely on some decisive transformation at their centre. For instance, in Groundhog Day, after repeatedly being slapped, Bill Murray’s character realises he’ll never get the girl if he remains so selfish; in Titanic, the ship hits an iceberg. We can identify such a moment in many novels too: in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India the midpoint occurs at the Marabar Caves; in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – SPOILER ALERT! – the midpoint occurs when we learn that Amy is still alive.
You may also have heard that stories should follow a three act structure. The first act reveals what’s happened, the second act develops the conflict, and the third act delivers a resolution. But you probably don’t have to worry too much about that advice, since if you’re following the other advice, a three act structure is kind of inevitable. As David Mamet put it:
Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary – or even a conscious – invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, act two, act three.’
Another example is the sonata form widely used in classical music, including Mozart’s 40th symphony. The exposition introduces the major themes, the development expands on those ideas but feels restless as it moves between keys, and in the recapitulation we return to the main themes presented at the start.
And so it is with most successful narratives: whatever adventures and subplots you have pursued in the middle section, it is to the main theme that the ending must return.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
(The performance of Mozart’s 40th symphony was recorded by the Columbia University Orchestra and has been released into the public domain.)