Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Conflict: Freytag's Pyramid and the Shape of Narrative

In discussing Freytag's Pyramid, so far we've only touched on the basic structure of the story.  In this lesson, we address how each individual components of the story contributes to the development and eventual resolution of the story's central conflict.

Freytag's Pyramid: As Much a Guideline as the Pirate's Code
As we know, every story has a different form of conflict.  For some stories - "Girl" and "The White Horse," for example - the central conflict is mostly internal.  In "Girl," the main character isn't trying to overcome the outside advice (at least not so far as we can tell in such a short story).  However, it is clear that her sense of identity is wrapped up in these external judgments, and it is her meek responses (e.g. "I don't sing...") which reveal her approach to the conflict.  In "The White Horse," the main character can't chase down the girl he hasn't seen for forty years, and it's clear that he won't.  But he must still face the specter of her memory and what it means as he approaches his own death.

Stories with external conflict are, in some ways, simpler.  Because the conflict comes from outside the character, the character can actually "solve" the situation.  We see this somewhat in "The Moths" and "Guests of the Nation."  In "Moths, the granddaughter's conflicts with her family place her in the role of sole caretaker for her grandmother, while the impending execution in "Guests" places the narrator in the uncomfortable position of deciding how he will fulfill his sense of duty to the IRA.  Note, however, that in both of these stories, the external conflict leads to an internal conflict, and it is this personal conflict which generates the true tension of the story.  The granddaughter must overcome her emotional fears of attachment, and the IRA guard must reconcile his "duty to the nation" with his inner notions of decency as a human being.

Freytag's Pyramid: A Blueprint for Conflict Resolution
We often make the mistake of assuming that Freytag's Pyramid simply represents the progression of events in a story. In reality, it's meant to represent the progression of tension. We start with the "low point" of exposition, work our way up to the "omigod!" of the climax, and then work our way back down somewhat to the emotional reflection of denouement.

Freytag's Pyramid: No, it's not symmetrical.  But then, neither are stories.  The Rising Action should represent the bulk of your story - the Exposition should be a brief introduction, the Climax represents such intensity that we can't stay there for long, and the Falling Action is meant as a breather so our characters have a chance to pick up the pieces.  The Resolution/Denouement is likewise short - the last piece of the puzzle is solved, and the characters finally realize how their lives have changed.

Naturally, you want every moment of the story to build and maintain sufficient tension to hold the reader's attention.  As a map, though, you can use Freytag's Pyramid to check if your story is accomplishing this goal.  Does the exposition start with a conflict?  Or do we simply see a main character starting with "just another day"?  In the rising action, is the character taking steps to overcome the conflict?  Do we have enough uncertainty leading into the climax that we feel compelled to read on to the end?  And, finally, does the denouement reveal a genuine change in the way your main character views the world?


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