In discussing plot structure I thought I’d start with the most basic premise – Freytag’s Pyramid. This is derived from Gustav Freytag’s analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. I know…that sounds really dated, but it’s still relevant. According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Exposition – this provides the introduction of the story, the background information the reader needs in order to know (and care) about what is happening. This is where the characters, the setting, and the conflict are introduced. This is also where the inciting incident takes place. This is the incident that triggers the conflict that drives the story. It’s worth noting that the inciting incident may not be obvious at the time, but in looking back the reader should be able to see what “started everything in motion.”
Rising Action – this is the action that builds up and leads to the climax. This will often also include actions in subplots and minor conflicts that propel the protagonist and antagonist along. During this phase the tension builds, the pressure increases, and the consequences become more significant.
Climax – the watershed moment when the rising action reaches its peak. At the climax the decisions and actions of the protagonist determine the outcome of the story. This is the most dangerous, most stressful, and most critical point of the story.
Falling Action – these are the activities that occur after the climax. They are the result of the climax and the point when the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels.
Resolution – the end of the falling action and the conclusion of the story. There is generally a release of tension and anxiety, a catharsis, and the point where the reader sees the final outcome of the conflict.
Although Freytag’s analysis is referred to as a pyramid, it isn’t geometric in shape. The rising action takes place through the majority of the story and is generally gradual while the falling action is typically very brief at the end of the story and, therefore, somewhat steep. So a pyramid is not really a very good visual tool to depict the five stages of the story.
There is also what I refer to as a modified pyramid. This is Freytag’s pyramid with a little wrinkle where it appears that the climax has been reached and the falling action begins, then the reader realizes that the conflict is not resolved after all. In fact, things are worse than before. So there’s another steep spike of rising action to the actual climax before the conflict is truly resolved.
In this case I’m not talking about a continuation of the climax, like a scene in a movie where the bad guy is in custody then, all of a sudden, he wrestles a gun away from his captor and starts shooting again. I’m talking about extended action. For example, in Red Dragon Thomas Harris sets the scene where the hero, Will Graham, believes the serial killer he’s after, Francis Dolarhyde, has died when his house burns during what appears to be the climax of the novel. But later, when the autopsies are done on the bodies found in the house, Graham learns that Dolarhyde was not killed in the fire and is, in fact, going after his family. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Red Dragon I highly recommend it. In my opinion it’s better than the subsequent stories featuring Hannibal Lecter.
So, that’s enough about formal plot structure. In the upcoming articles I’ll get more into specific techniques for developing main plots and subplots, outlining, and story progression – as in linear progression vs flashbacks and memories.