Understanding Freytag’s Pyramid for Content Marketing

Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

Among storytelling structures, Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common and easiest to understand. If you took any literature classes in school, you may have even heard of this one.

Based on the work of German playwright Gustav Freytag, Freytag’s Pyramid is applied to a typical 5-act play. (Sort of the Romans’ “new and improved” followup to Aristotle’s original 3-act story.)
Freytag's Pyramid
The idea, said Gustav, is the traditional 5-act structure can be broken down like this:

  • Exposition: Important background information is laid out: characters, setting, previous events. It can be conveyed through dialogue, flashbacks, and narrative exposition. In Macbeth, the titular protagonist and his friends are visited by the Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth shall be king, and Banquo shall father a line of kings.
  • Rising action: A series of events that build to the climax. This is where the instigating event happens, which drives the protagonist to pursue his or her course of action. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kill the king, frame the servants, murder the guards, and drive off King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, all in their mad pursuit of power.
  • Climax: Not necessarily the final battle, but this is the point on which the play/story pivots. This is the turning point that changes the protagonist’s fate. If the play is a comedy, things were going badly for the protagonist, but now they turn around. If it’s a tragedy, then it’s the reverse. In Macbeth — a tragedy if there ever was one — things were going swimmingly for Macbeth: he and his wife were killing people willy-nilly, becoming the King and Queen of Scotland until, in Act III, Macbeth had Banquo murdered, and Banquo’s ghost showed up and went all Tell-Tale Heart on Macbeth. (You can see a great animated video of The Tell-Tale Heart here.)
  • Falling action: In a tragedy, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist increases and this becomes the focus of the play. In a comedy, the protagonist wins, in a tragedy, they lose. In Macbeth, things start going downhill for our king. He feels uneasy and starts to think maybe he shouldn’t have been such a murdering bastard after all. But, in for a penny, in for a pound; after Macduff flees, Macbeth orders his castle seized and his household murdered, including Mrs. Macduff and Macduff Junior.
  • Dénouement: Pronounced DAY-noo-mohn (from the French dénouer, or “to untie”), this is the resolution of the story. Conflicts are resolved, there’s a release of tension, and everything goes back to normal/a new normal is established. In a comedy, the plan comes together, the hero gets the girl/guy, and everyone is happy. In the tragedy, the protagonist often dies, and everyone says “Whew! I’m glad that’s over!” But, there’s always some glimpse of the new order or a new hope. For Macbeth, things went increasingly poorly for him. His wife yelled at the dog (“Out, out, damn Spot!”) and committed suicide, and Macbeth was beheaded by Macduff. Malcolm, son of King Duncan, is crowned king, and he promises to be less killy than the last guy.
    1. See how it all fits together? Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays fit within this structure, although it’s important to note that stories will fit into more than one storytelling structure. There’s no right or wrong one.

      For example, The Hobbit is often considered a Hero’s Journey story, it can also be mapped out in a five act structure:

      1. Bilbo meets Gandalf and the dwarves.
      2. They have adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain.
      3. They fight Smaug; Smaug dies. But this is not the end of the story!
      4. The Battle of the Five Armies, and the eagles save the day again.
      5. Relationships are mended, Thorin is buried, Bilbo returns home.

      (And if you start hollering about spoilers, the book is 80 years old. You should have read it by now.)

      It’s important to note that Freytag’s Pyamid is not ideally suited for modern stories, which can have 8 acts or even just a strung-together series of scenes. Can you imagine how terrible Avengers 2 would be if the Avengers defeated Ultron at the 1-hour mark? Then we’ve got 1:22 of the Avengers rebuilding stuff and talking about their feelings and shit. Plus, most modern stories have a few climactic scenes, like any Marvel movie. (That structure is called The Fichtean Curve, and I’ll cover it in a week or so.)

      However, Herr Freytag’s construct is a little more forgiving in a content marketing setting, because it doesn’t always have to focus on two characters, like the Hero’s Journey. There, you’re either the Hero or the Mentor.

      Freytag’s Pyramid still follows the exploits of a protagonist and an antagonist, but there are a couple of important differences. First of all, victory is not always guaranteed. Second, we can learn from these failures and use them as a cautionary tale. Third, we can learn about any follow-up and fallout from the climactic pivot point.

      In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can actually use Freytag’s Pyramid for content marketing.

      Photo credit: BrokenSegue (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)