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History of Freytag’s Pyramid (or the Five-Act Story Structure)
Gustav Freytag was a nineteenth-century German novelist who saw common patterns in the plots of stories and novels. He developed a diagram based on the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
In Aristotle’s book Poetics, he wrote that the unified structure of a drama was formed like a basic triangle. The low left point of the triangle was the protasis (introduction), the middle high point of the triangle was the epitasis (crisis), and the low right point of the triangle was the catastrophe (resolution of conflict).
Freytag took Aristotle’s triangle, transformed it into a pyramid, and added two more levels at the left and right mid-points of the triangle. The result was Freytag’s pyramid or the Five-Act Story Structure. According to Freytag, the plot of a story or novel was divided into five parts or acts: Act 1: Exposition (or introduction), Act 2: Rising Action (or complication), Act 3: Climax (or turning point), Act 4: Falling Action, and Act 5: Denouement (or resolution).
Why Writers Use the Five-Act Story Structure
The original intention of Freytag’s Pyramid or the Five-Act Story Structure might have been to analyze previously written works, but writers have found it a helpful method to conceptualize the dramatic points in stories. This is only one of many story structures, but using this story structure (or another) provides a better chance of providing reader satisfaction.
If a story is looked at in percentages, Act 1 will be 25% of the story, Acts 2-4 will be 50% of the story, and Act 5 will be 25% of the story.
To write using the Five-Act Story Structure, a writer must be able to identify three things:
- The inciting incident: must strongly affect the protagonist and leave him/her no choice but to resolve the incident
- Conflict(s) faced by the protagonist: can be internal, external or both and will drive the narrative
- Resolution of inciting incident: protagonist must overcome conflict(s) and be left permanently changed