As many writers often encounter, there are numerous schools of thought when it comes to the drafting process. Fellow writers have opinions about whether or not you should edit as you write, if you should plot your story in its entirety before you write a single word or simply start writing and let the characters lead you, and much more. In the online writing community, you may encounter terms like “plotter” and “pantser,” separating those who plot their stories in advance from those who fly by the seat of their pants as they write into two camps. No matter how you prefer to draft, however, when it comes to fiction, one thing is vital to consider: story structure.
According to the literary philosophy of nineteenth-century German novelist Gustav Freytag, all stories follow a basic five-point structure: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. This structure is oftentimes referred to as Freytag’s Pyramid. According to some literary pundits, there are two additional points: Exposition, which occurs prior to the Inciting Incident, and the Conclusion, which is any action between the Resolution of the plot and the final scene. Many readers and writers alike subconsciously identify these points, but the definitions of these technical terms are provided below:
- Exposition – the audience is given background into the character/their relationships and the world in which the story takes place
- Inciting Incident – the event that sets the story in motion; this is when the protagonist receives their “quest”
- Rising Action – a series of events (and possibly “side quests”) the protagonist endures in order to reach the ultimate battle/complete the task/slay the dragon (metaphorical or fantastical); this when the bulk of their mission occurs
- Climax – the protagonist’s mission reaches its ultimate height; they arrive at their destination/engage in the final battle/acquire the “Holy Grail” they sought/slay the dragon
- Falling Action – the protagonist’s mission is complete; this is their journey—however brief—as they return to their “kingdom”/home
- Resolution – the quest has been completed and the protagonist has returned home; may coincide with the Falling Action
- Conclusion – the story ends; if a sequel will follow, the stage is set for the sequel to eventually begin/the sequel’s events are foreshadowed
Conceptually, these points can be represented like this:
In practice, however, a story’s structure is more likely to resemble a cliff, as illustrated in Graphic B (common for Children’s, Middle Grade, and most Adult genres), or Graphic C (sometimes seen in New Adult and other Adult genres).
Throughout every stage of the drafting process, these points are crucial to keep in mind—they determine your story’s pacing. While terms like “too quickly” or “too long” are subjective, it’s important to consider how long it takes for a story to truly begin with the Inciting Incident that ultimately spurs your character(s) to action. Likewise, the timing between that event and when the story reaches its Climax—and, subsequently, the time it takes for the character(s) to progress from the Climax to the Conclusion—can impact a reader’s experience.
Moreover, by keeping track of the points in your plot relative to Freytag’s Pyramid, you can determine where in your story you may need more content. Could you include additional world- or character-building chapters throughout the Rising Action? Did something happen at the Climax that the protagonist now needs to celebrate or grieve or process in some way? If you view Freytag’s Pyramid as a connect-the-dots for your story, as you draft and connect those dots, you can start to see what the whole picture—your finished book—may look like.
Above all, it’s important to remember that everyone’s pyramid—even in the same genre—will be unique, just as your story is unique. For that matter, I encourage every drafting writer to consider their pyramid as a fluid structure that can change as you progress through multiple iterations of your story. It can change however you need it to and however feels right as you work through your various drafts. No matter which writing or self-editing stage you’re in, your book isn’t set in stone—it’s a work in progress.
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