On December 17, Kasie and Rex finished the Freytag’s Pyramid discussion begun the week before. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
Plot structure: Freytag’s Pyramid Part 2
- Plot Structure Basics
- Focus on Freytag’s Pyramid Part 2
- How to do it
How much fun was our Holiday Party? We really appreciated the readers – Lis Anna-Langston, Walter Curry, Bonnie Stanard, AJ Brown, Phil Lenski, Paula Gail Benson. What good sports to come out in that rainy weather and read some holiday stories and eat candy and drink booze.
We also picked up a new patron so welcome, Treb Courie, as our newest patron subscriber. He was asking me Thursday if he was allowed to commission short stories now. I told him he had to level up for that 🙂
Speaking of patrons, next week we’ll have one of our dedicated patrons, Rose Mooney, in the studio with us. She says she doesn’t want to be on the air but we’ll see how that goes. Rex can be bombastic.
Let’s get back to Freytag and finish this up. So last week we talked a lot about the left side of the pyramid – starting your story with exposition and what that rising action should look like. We then discussed the climax scene and how most of us think of it as being much later in the story. That’s because we’re used to this plot structure:
When plot is structured like this, the climax scene is the final battle, the test of the hero, the chance for the hero to at last overcome his tragic flaw and defeat the big bad.
But Freytag is older and his structure is more even. An equal amount of rising and falling action. The Climax is a decision, the point at which the plot shifts because of something the character has decided to do.
Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that structure next week when we break down some classic holiday films on Christmas eve.
Rising Action is where we left off last week.
So, rising action is why we keep turning the page, but it only matters if our character is growing, changing, and making decisions that put him closer to his goal but – if you can manage it – further from the person he was when the story began.
As we were leaving the studio last Saturday, Rex said rising action was the most boring part of the story. Let’s unpack that.
Rising action, if it’s just a constant struggle against the Big Bad can get boring. I know, it shouldn’t, but it does. Oh, look! Same battle, different setting. Yay.
Here are some tips to make the rising action consistently engaging (link):
- Know your character’s desires and motivations – what does he want? Why can’t he have it? What’s standing in his way? How will he overcome it?
- Whatever can go wrong, must go wrong as soon as possible – he can’t control others, they have their own motivations; whose motivations conflict with the protagonist?
- Mix short-term with long-term – those scene-level conflicts don’t all have to point to the main one, do they? Or, if they do, can they be subplot points?
- Don’t pity your protagonist – it might be tempting to help him out, give him stuff. Don’t! That’s a recipe for boring.
- Find your protagonist’s worst fear – what is the thing he doesn’t even admit to himself?
- Mind the boundaries – trouble after trouble might seem fun, but let’s not get aliens-landing-in-the-backyard crazy.
I googled “what do people get wrong about climax scenes?” and found some pfft. So here’s our take. A climax is only as good as the stakes. When this thing happens, it has to change everything. It’s a realization, a disaster, or a big reveal that shakes the characters and the reader. What does it have to have:
- Plenty of characters – don’t climax alone. Get your character in front of others, let there be witnesses, give them a stake in the climax, too. This is how we know when Harry sees the patronus coming to rescue him (his dad sent it!) that it isn’t the climax. No one else saw it except him. The second time, when he’s the one who sends it (his dad’s still dead, duh), Hermione is there.
- Enough build up – Freytag had the climax in the middle of the story, the moment when the character’s fortunes change (think Romeo being exiled) but we understand the climax to come later, much closer to the end, and, as such, it’ll have a lot more build up. In many cases, the climax is the position where of course we know what will happen, it couldn’t persist as it was but it can’t turn out any other way … or can it? It’s the build up that’ll determine. (good resource here)
- A decision the main character has to make: “The global climax is the moment of truth when the character can choose to abandon their previous strategy that didn’t work for a chance to try a new strategy, if they have the mettle to try.” (source)
- Consequences – the rest of the book is about the consequences of that decision.
So what do all great story climax scenes have in common? How about these examples and their commonalities (link):
- Increased external conflicts – time-bound stakes are good here; something inevitable is coming. Or the obstacles get bigger; list the complications and order them so they get increasingly more challenging.
- Amplify the internal conflict – how deeply tormented can your character be? As the external crises mount, the internal conflict should become more unbearable.
- Setting can add uncertainty – if the character is out of his usual location, or forced to navigate some new location, the uncertainty of that place can add to the suspense and drama
- Structure of scenes – shorter scenes build tension with their rapid-fire details and pivots
So if we’re not on the traditional arc, we’re in Freytag, what are the elements of a good climax?