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What is Freytag's Pyramid?

Updated: May 29, 2023

When we talk about the structure of novels, there are none, in my opinion, more important than Freytag's Pyramid. Freytag's Pyramid was created by 19th century German playwright Gustav Freytag, and it is a model of dramatic structure. There are other structures, but these are the main ones:

1. Freytag’s Pyramid

2. Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

3. Three-Act Structure

4. Save the Cat Beat Sheet

5. In Medias Res

6. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey

7. Seven-Point Story Structure

8. John Gardner’s Fichtean Curve

Today we're going to focus on Freytag's Pyramid. Over the next few posts we'll dive deeper into all of the remaining seven. So, let's get started.

Freytag’s Pyramid Contains 7 elements:

  1. Exposition - Characters, Setting, Background Information, Tone

  2. The Inciting Incident - The first instance of conflict that gets our hero moving

  3. Rising Action - The stakes rise. Hurdles are thrown at our hero that our hero must overcome. New characters may arise

  4. Climax - The moment of greatest tension in our plot between our hero and their opposition. It’s the turning point before the falling action

  5. Falling Action - Our hero’s conflict with the opposition is wrapping up, and slowly, leading to the resolution

  6. Resolution - Conflict ends, and we come to know whether our hero achieves what they set out to achieve, or if they haven’t

  7. Dénouement – The tying up of loose ends

So let's begin with Exposition:

Exposition is where you introduce the reader to the world they’re stepping into. It’s where you introduce your hero, the setting in which your story takes place, what they want (meaning their goal), and, ideally, what’s stopping them from reaching their goal.

An example of exposition in a first chapter that accomplishes much is John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”: A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress."

In these first lines we get to know the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, as well as what he looks like and the type of character he might be, his thoughts about money and perhaps class, and the setting. We want to keep reading because of how interesting and distinct of a hero Ignatius is, as well as why he thinks the way he does.

The Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident is what sets the journey or story in motion. It’s the catalyst for what’s to come for our hero, and it will (ideally) lead to a change in the character and become part of her arc. It’s a beat in the narrative that upsets our hero’s status quo, but one that promises the potential for the hero to achieve her goal, or for her to get what she wants. It’s your job as the author to show what the inciting incident is, and then to show the hero’s struggle to either resist the call to action, or accept it (hint, they need to accept it for us to have a story). There will be struggles our hero will have to face. There will be consequences to the hurdles they overcome. The stakes will get higher. The hero’s want or goal will be either external or internal.

Rising Action

Rising Action refers to the events leading up to the climax. Rising action are the major events that add suspense to your novel. It is when the hurdles and complications arise, where the hero or protagonist begins to understand the situation they’re in, and where readers begin to settle in with the main characters in the story, both good and bad, allies and enemies. Rising Action asks questions that need to be answered, whatever they may be. In Freytag’s Pyramid, Rising Action follows the exposition and the inciting incident.


The climax is the highest point of Freytag’s Pyramid, and where the reader experiences the most intense moment in your novel. In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” it is when Romeo and Juliet commit suicide. In E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the climax is when Wilbur, the pig, wins at the county fair and is thus saved from being butchered. The Climax in your novel should be the turning point of your hero’s character, whether good or bad.

Falling Action

Falling Action is the downslope on Freytag’s Pyramid, and it comes directly after the climax. It is the unraveling of the conflict between your hero and whoever or whatever they’re up against, and it leads to the resolution of your novel. Falling Action allows your readers to take a breath, to have their need for any loose ends to be tied up, especially if you have any subplots in your novel, and it leads to the final two steps in our Pyramid, the Resolution and Dénouement.

The Resolution and Dénouement

The Resolution and Dénouement of your novel are when the loose ends of your main plot are untied or resolved (Dénouement is the French word for “untie the knot”). Your Resolution should resolve whatever conflict is left between your hero and her opposition, as well as inform the reader whether or not she achieved her goal—did she win the medal, fulfill the goals she set for herself on her journey, or did she fail but learn a valuable lesson in the process. In Freytag’s Pyramid, the Dénouement of our novel is the final tying up of any loose ends. If there are any outstanding questions, answers are provided, and the reader knows the outcome. Whether or not the outcome is a positive one or a negative one is secondary to the author’s wrapping it all up.

Following Freytag's Pyramid is a great way to understand the structure of your novel, because it's like a blueprint to ensuring your writing is meeting the expectations of your readers. It also gives you, the writer, an overarching outline that you can follow, even if not exactly (remember, there are other structures out there, and we'll get into those soon). For now, go out there with this new structure and play around with it a little. Compare novels you read to see how Freytag's Pyramid applies to them, but also, if you've already written a novel, how it applies (or doesn't) to your novel. You never know what you'll find until you get in there and give it a go.

Happy writing.

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