Authorguy's Blog

The shape of things to become

Posted on: August 12, 2010


Circles and triangles, depending on who’s talking. 

I recently read a blog post in which the poster was decrying the lack of knowledge among those who were supposed to be teaching elements of craft to attendees at writing conventions and conferences.  In that post she mentioned a technical term I’d never heard of before, ‘Freytag’s Pyramid (or Triangle)’.  This was an idea developed by a German novelist named Freytag to describe what he saw as a standard structure in the stories he read.  I will refrain from going into details, just check the link if you’re curious.  I have seen much this same structure, described at length in Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, only in that book the shape is described as a circle, not a triangle.  In both cases the hero returns to the world and dispenses some wisdom/aid or other boon he has received in the course of his adventure, but in the pyramid, the place he returns to is not the place he left. 

The Pyramid has the advantage of being linear, the place the hero returns to is not the place he left, it is the place he left plus whatever happened there while he was gone.  Not that he necessarily went anywhere, or that he went alone.  Freytag was analyzing the structure of the whole play/story.  The difference between Freytag and Campbell could be introduced with a base line to the Pyramid, representing the world Campbell’s Hero leaves behind.  In Freytag’s case, this base line would have the same shape as the hero’s line.

At various times I described my book Unbinding the Stone both ways.  As  the start of  series, it has the complication that there are parts of the story that are series-related rather than simply story-related, although I don’t know if this would change the basic shape.  The hero, Tarkas in this case, leaves place A to go to B.  He receives some training/wisdom there and goes off to place C, with an epicycle taking him off to place D.  He does his heroic duty and returns to C for a resolution and thence to B, and from there he returns to place A, which is now vastly different because he has changed while it has changed in some other way, maybe not changed at all.  The exposition sequence of the pyramid exists in both a greater (Tarkas going to C) and a lesser (Tarkas going to A) form, as does the resolution.   A Pyramid on top of a Pyramid, sort of.   In terms of the story structure it has much more in common with Campbell’s Circle. 

How relevent is the Pyramid to today’s stories’ structures, though?   A lot of our stories are told in three acts, rather than five, and it seems to me that the climax and the resolution come much closer together.  Or does it just seem like that because I mostly read fantasy?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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