There are so many screenwriting terms out there, and I find that some of the older ones are the best to learn. The reason is they can help reveal classical understandings of story and structure that can revive what you're working on now -- like Freytag's Pyramid.

It's a tool that continues to guide screenwriters in crafting captivating and emotionally satisfying stories even after its founding in the 19th century.

Today, we'll go over the term, look at its definition, and talk about how writers can use it to their advantage.

Let's dive in.

What is Freytag's Pyramid?

Freytag's Pyramid is a model of dramatic structure that outlines the typical stages of a story. It's named after Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who analyzed classic dramas and identified this common pattern.

Here are the five key elements of Freytag's Pyramid:

  1. Exposition:
    • Sets the scene.
    • Introduces the main characters, setting, and the central conflict or problem.
  2. Rising Action:
    • The tension builds as the characters encounter obstacles and complications.
    • The stakes increase, drawing the audience further into the story.
  3. Climax:
    • The peak of tension and the turning point of the story.
    • It often involves a major confrontation, decision, or a significant turning point.
  4. Falling Action:
    • The consequences of the climax unfold.
    • Tension starts to decrease, but there might still be unresolved issues.
  5. Denouement (Resolution):
    • The story concludes.
    • Conflicts get resolved, questions are answered, and the audience gets a sense of closure.

Why is it shaped like a pyramid? The visual shape helps illustrate the rising and falling tension within a story. It builds towards a peak (the climax) and then gradually resolves.

Freytag's Pyramid Examples

AIThelma & Louise


Countless classic and contemporary films and TV shows utilize Freytag's Pyramid. Here are a few examples:

  • Star Wars: A New Hope
    • Exposition: We meet Luke Skywalker, a restless farm boy in a galaxy dominated by an evil Empire.
    • Rising Action: Luke joins Obi-Wan Kenobi and sets off to rescue Princess Leia, facing increasing danger.
    • Climax: The epic battle against the Death Star.
    • Falling Action: The destruction of the Death Star and the heroes are celebrated.
    • Denouement: Though there's a victory, the larger war with the Empire continues.
  • Thelma and Louise
    • Exposition: Two women are dissatisfied with their mundane lives.
    • Rising Action: Their road trip takes a tragic turn, escalating into a run from the law.
    • Climax: The iconic final drive off a cliff, choosing freedom over capture.
    • Falling Action: We only witness the car hurtling into the canyon.
    • Denouement: The film leaves their fate ambiguous, highlighting their rebellion.
  • FindingNemo
    • Exposition: We meet Marlin, a clownfish, and his son Nemo in their peaceful ocean home. Marlin's overprotective nature foreshadows conflict.
    • Rising Action: Nemo is captured by divers, and Marlin embarks on a desperate search across the ocean, encountering dangers along the way.
    • Climax: Marlin reunites with Nemo inside the dentist's fish tank.
    • Falling Action: Nemo and the other fish escape the tank and return to the ocean.
    • Denouement: Marlin and Nemo are reunited, and Marlin has learned to trust his son more.
TV Drama:Breaking Bad
  • Exposition: Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with cancer and becomes desperate to secure his family's financial future.
  • Rising Action: Walt partners with a former student, Jesse, to cook and sell meth. He becomes increasingly embroiled in the dangerous world of the drug trade.
  • Climax: Several season climaxes exist throughout the series. One notable one is the face-off between Walt and Gus Fring, a powerful drug lord.
  • Falling Action: The consequences of Walt's choices unfold. Relationships crumble, violence escalates, and the DEA closes in.
  • Denouement: The series concludes with a violent showdown where Walt sacrifices himself to protect Jesse and provide for his family.

TV Comedy:The Office (US)

  • Exposition: Introduces the mundane world of Dunder Mifflin paper company and its quirky employees, like Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, and Jim Halpert.
  • Rising Action: Office pranks, awkward romances, and Michael's cringe-worthy management style create comedic conflict.
  • Climax: Often smaller climaxes in individual episodes (e.g., the epic fire drill chaos, the disastrous dinner party). A major climax for the series is Jim and Pam's wedding.
  • Falling Action: The aftermath of the comedic climaxes provide further humor and resolution.
  • Denouement: The series finale offers closure, showing where the characters end up, providing a mix of humor and sentimentality.
TV Genre Show:Game of Thrones
  • Exposition: Various noble families in the realm of Westeros vie for power amidst hints of supernatural threats.
  • Rising Action: Multiple storylines filled with political intrigue, betrayals, alliances, and wars build up tension.
  • Climax: Several major climaxes mark the show, such as the Red Wedding, the Battle of the Bastards, and the destruction of King's Landing.
  • Falling Action: The aftermath of each climax reshapes the power dynamics and reveals the consequences of choices made.
  • Denouement: The controversial final season ties up storylines and determines the fate of Westeros, offering mixed closure for dedicated viewers.
Things to Note:
  • Episode Structure: Individual episodes of TV series can have their own mini-Freytag's Pyramids within the larger arc of the season or series.
  • Flexibility: Especially in comedies and serialized dramas, the pyramid offers a framework rather than a rigid rule.
  • Suspense: Many shows use cliffhangers at the end of rising action to keep audiences hooked for the next episode.

How Writers Use Freytag's Pyramid


Freytag's Pyramid


Freytag's Pyramid provides writers with a valuable framework for developing stories that have a clear sense of direction, engaging conflicts, and emotionally satisfying resolutions.

Here's a few more detailed thigns writers can use it to accomplish:

Structural Foundation
  • Overall Pacing: Understanding the stages of the pyramid helps create a sense of natural build-up and release of tension. It prevents stories from feeling rushed or meandering.
  • Turning Points: The pyramid provides a roadmap for identifying where major shifts in the plot should occur. This could be the inciting incident that kicks off the rising action, or the decisive moment of the climax.
  • Subplots: Even if a story has multiple threads, each can have its own mini-arc that aligns with the overall structure, creating a cohesive whole.
Character Development
  • Character Arcs: The challenges faced in the rising action, the climax's turning point, and the consequences in the falling action fuel a character's growth and transformation.
  • Audience Connection: Watching characters navigate the different stages of the pyramid creates empathy and emotional investment for the audience. The struggles and triumphs become more relatable.
Plot Development
  • Obstacles and Stakes: The rising action demands progressively greater challenges for the characters. This raises the stakes and makes the climax feel earned.
  • Introducing Complications: The pyramid helps determine when to bring in new information, surprise twists, or additional conflicts that propel the story forward.
  • Foreshadowing and Payoff: Early hints or setups in the exposition and rising action can later pay off in satisfying ways during the climax or resolution.
Important Considerations
  • Not a Rule: Freytag's Pyramid is a tool, not a rigid rule. Successful stories often experiment with deviations or variations.
  • Genre Awareness: The pyramid's usefulness may vary depending on genre. Thrillers might lean more heavily on the buildup towards a climactic revelation, while comedies might have multiple smaller climaxes throughout.
  • Avoiding Formulaic Writing: The best stories use the framework as a foundation, but infuse it with unique characters, conflicts, and thematic depth to avoid clichés.

Freytag's Pyramid provides a valuable foundation for screenwriters.expand_more By understanding and consciously utilizing its elements, you can create dynamic stories that engage audiences from beginning to end.

Let me know what you think in the comments.