Story shapes

For me, thinking about a story’s “shape” is a way of standing back from the story and seeing its broad outlines rather than the details. Is there a pattern here? Some sort of unexpected symmetry? Is anything missing?

You may have heard of Freytag’s pyramid: the classic story shape sketched out by the 19th-century novelist Gustav Freytag: a classic model of story structure that plots the way stories rise through moments of conflict to a peak at the point of crisis (the climax) and then descend into the “falling action” or denouement. Yes, it’s a structure that one can find in innumerable stories, and it’s a useful tool for thinking about how to put together your own plots, but it’s worth considering that this model was created in 1863. That’s right, 1863.

A plot might be something more -- or different -- than what the pyramid model allows us to see. What other shapes do stories reveal? What other shapes or patterns might your own story follow?

Exercise: sketch out a plot for a story based on one of the following shapes, or choose a shape of your own.

Top illustration: detail from Voyage d'Hermes by Moebius.


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