Freytag’s Diagram & Common Plot Types
In elementary school, we learn about Freytag’s diagram, the supposed general outline of every plot in the universe. The idea is: a story starts with characters in an uneventful position, obstacles and difficulties begin to build on until the climax is reached, and then the solution leads the characters to a better place than they began. Fortunately for readers everywhere, this is not the plot structure of all stories. However, we can use the concept behind Freytag’s diagram to identify characteristics of common plot types.
Freytag’s diagram is a near-perfect depiction of the Hero’s Journey, the classic plot type that involves an unexpecting (and, initially, unwilling) hero receiving a call to action. The hero then faces a variety of obstacles (physical and emotional) that aim to prevent him from reaching his goal. This is the rising action of Freytag’s diagram.
After the hero achieves his goal (the climax), he returns to his old life (the falling action). Importantly, he has learned from his experiences and become a better person, so the right side of the mountain is higher than the left side.
The first Harry Potter novel depicts a quintessential example of the Hero’s Journey.
Rags to Riches
However, most characters do not return to their old life after their adventure. Some find their lives become infinitely better from the initiation to the conclusion of their journey. Think: Cinderella or The Pursuit of Happyness.
Here, the characters start off in a terrible position—so much so that the plot is unable to make them worse off. Instead, after a typically extended look at the characters in their daily lives (exposition), the characters get an opportunity to move up on Freytag’s diagram. Sometimes, a Fairy Godmother helps them up, but most of the time, they do have to work their way up.
Either way, the story ends with the characters sky high, and there’s no looking back.
Of course, the opposite could happen, too. Tragedies are best exemplified by Shakespeare plays, many of whose titles start with The Tragedy of. This plot is characterized by a downward spiral over the second half of the story, with the characters facing loss after loss with no hope for a lifeline.
One subtype of this plot is riches to rags, where the characters start high up on Freytag’s diagram. However, tragedies can come in all flavors, and the characters may start at any level of happiness. The only criteria is that they face the same fate at the end.
Most stories can be categorized into one of the types above, but some cannot. Consider comedies, which often include characters with relatively unchanging levels of happiness. Their Freytag’s diagram is basically a horizontal line.
The point of this is: you don’t have to feel confined to any story structure. The basic structure we learn in school is just a beginning, and it is up to you as a writer to shape it into something that you want to write about. If every story had the same structure, books and movies would become insanely predictable and boring.
What type of stories do you like best? Let me know in the comments!