Against Freytag’s Pyramid

An important note to high school students:  if you have landed on this page after a Google search such as “freytag pyramid for wuthering heights”, “freytag pyramid for macbeth”, “freytag pyramid for lord of the flies”, “freytag pyramid for romeo and juliet”, or any of the other literature you may be studying in class, I have just one message for you:  get off your computer and go read the book.  There is nothing here that will help you.  This is a discussion about how stale Freytag’s Pyramid is, and how I wish your English teacher would assign something fresher, something that you won’t be able to get on the Goog.

Now on to Freytag.  You can read a lot on the Internet about Gustav Freytag’s being an anti-Semite.  Apparently his most popular novel was filled with odious stereotypes.  You can also read defenses of him, all about how his wife was Jewish, and how for a while there was a custom in Germany of giving that same novel, Soll und Haben, to young men as a bar mitzvah gift.  I’m not going to weigh in on this debate on either side, partly because I’m ignorant, not having read Soll und Haben, but mostly because everybody’s ignorant on this issue, since nobody reads Soll und Haben anymore, despite the fact that it was once very popular.

No, it’s another grudge I have against old Gustav.  It’s the pyramid thing.  And it’s not even really his fault.  He’s been miserably taken out of context.  In 1893, Freytag, a novelist and academic, published Technik des Dramas, which is an exploration of the structure of ancient Greek tragedies.  Nobody much reads that book either.  Poor Gustav.  In this case, it’s not because of his anti-Semitism, however; it’s because everybody thinks they know what he means already.  They’ve condensed him into a diagram, and thus must certainly know everything he had to say.

The problem comes when we assume that this idea must apply, not just to the plays and period that Freytag was using it to describe, but to any kind of story ever written.  Excuse me if I’m being obvious here, but we don’t exactly tell stories the way we used to.  We don’t have long moments of exposition at the start; we don’t bury the climax in the third of five acts; we don’t have a denoument that’s as long as the rising action.  Sometimes we don’t even have any discernible denoument.

Poor old Gustav never intended his pyramid as a one-size-fits-all description of story.  If you want something like that, go to Robert McKee’s Story, though McKee is much too interesting, detailed and various in his approach to boil down to a single diagram.

It’s not that I’m against diagrams either.  I love “graphic organizers” as the fashion is to call them now.  I love the idea of having students demonstrate their understanding of the elements of plot in a graphical form.  However, having them contort their understanding in order to fit it into a shape it wasn’t meant for seems like a specious exercise at best.  And when there are so many resources available on the ‘net for them to copy, really, what’s the point?

Fortunately, there are alternatives.  I mentioned McKee above.  Even better, what about Kurt Vonnegut.  Check this out:

I got that link from my pal Barry Mager.  Thanks, Barry.  I had been given the idea of a “fortune graph” a couple of years earlier by my math teacher pal Duncan Leblanc, who found it in some numeracy publication.  I’m pretty sure that whoever had written the article in that publication must have acquired the idea (however second- third- or fourth-hand) from Mr. Vonnegut, who uses it so cleverly here.  Seriously, if you didn’t watch the video, it’s worth the few minutes.  There’s a reason Vonnegut commanded the attention of so many millions.

If you’re an English teacher, and interested in applying this idea, here’s a free blank.  I’m not suggesting Vonnegut’s fortune graph as a replacement for Freytag’s Pyramid.  For one thing, it doesn’t teach inciting event, rising action, complications, climax, resolution and demoument, which I still think are valuable terms.  But the fortune graph teaches other, equally interesting lessons.  I often demonstrate the graph by plotting Goldilocks, Mama Bear and Baby Bear as they move through the events of the same day.  It makes the point that a story is different depending on whose point of view we assume, and is therefore really interesting to use for stories with multiple points of view or unreliable narrators.

One of the best things about Vonnegut’s fortune graph is that it isn’t well-enough known yet to be called Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, and that therefor when I assign it as homework for my students, Google won’t help them out at all.  They have to do their own original thinking.  You can’t say the same for, oh, “freytag pyramid for wuthering heights”, “freytag pyramid for macbeth”, “freytag pyramid for lord of the flies”, “freytag pyramid for romeo and juliet” or any of the other autocomplete suggestions on Google that tell me quite a lot of students are not presenting original work.

And why should they?  Clearly their teachers aren’t being very original either.


About davidlomax

Writer, teacher, husband, dad. Geek from way back. Author of the totally pre-orderable Backward Glass, out in October 2013 from Flux Books ( View all posts by davidlomax

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