Another Way of Looking at Plot
Freytag on Plot
Gustav Freytag (13 July 1816 – 30 April 1895) was a German novelist and playwright. Gustav Freytag considered plot a narrative structure that divides a story into five parts, like the five acts of a play. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or turning point); falling action; and resolution.
The exposition introduces all (or at least most) of the main characters in the story. It shows how they relate to one another, what their goals and motivations and allegiances are, and the kind of persons they are. Most importantly, in the exposition the audience gets to know the main character (protagonist), with whom the reader will usually most identify. The protagonist discovers his or her main goal and what is at stake if he/she fails to attain this goal, or what he/she will gain if he/she eventually meets this goal. The next phase of plot begins with the introduction of conflict.
Because desire leads to action and action to fulfillment, a character with a desire will begin to act. From this action comes movement, which is plot. As a consequence of the varying desires of the various characters, the characters inevitably will begin to struggle against one another.
Rising action is the second phase in Freytag’s five-phase structure. It starts with a dramatic event (sometimes even the death of a character) or a conflict.
Generally, in this phase the protagonist understands his or her goal and begins to work toward it. Smaller problems thwart the protagonist’s initial success and, in this phase, progress is directed primarily against these secondary obstacles. The “rising action” phase of plot shows us how the protagonist overcomes these obstacles.
Right before the Climax is the Inciting Incident. This is the point of the plot that acts as a turning point and prepares the audience for the climax. In other structural criteria, the Inciting Incident is the event at the end of the Exposition that initiates the plot. (For example, Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seminal work of comparative mythology, describes a different story structure, in which the hero goes on a quest and the first step of this quest is crossing the threshold (inciting incident)–the first call to action. You can read more about Campbell’s book here: The Hero with a Thousand Faces). According to Freytag, the event in the middle is the Technical Climax, which he also calls the Reversal.
The point of climax is the turning point of the story, where the main character makes the single big decision that defines the outcome of the story and who he or she is as a person. The dramatic phase that Freytag called the “climax” is the third of the five phases and occupies the middle of the story. Thus “the climax” may refer to either the point of climax or to the third phase of the drama.
The beginning of this phase is marked by the protagonist finally having cleared away the preliminary barriers and being ready to engage with the adversary. Usually, entering this phase, both the protagonist and the antagonist have a plan to win against the other. Now for the first time we see them going against one another in either direct or nearly direct conflict.
This struggle results with neither character completely winning, nor losing, against the other. Usually, each character’s plan is partially successful, and partially foiled by his adversary. What is unique about this central struggle between the two characters is that the protagonist makes a decision which shows us his moral quality, which ultimately determines his fate. In a tragedy, the protagonist here makes a “bad” decision, a miscalculation that demonstrates his tragic flaw (what Aristotle called “hamartia”).
The climax often contains much of the action in a story, for example, a defining battle. ″Climax″ is the highest point of the story.
Freytag called this phase “falling action” in the sense that the loose ends are being tied up. However, it is often the time of greatest overall tension, because it is the phase in which everything goes mostly wrong.
In this phase, the villain has the upper hand. It seems that evil will triumph. The protagonist has never been further from accomplishing the goal. For Freytag, this is true both in tragedies and comedies, because both of these types of plots classically show good winning over evil eventually. The question is which side the protagonist has put himself on, and this may not be immediately clear to the audience.
The Resolution: where the story’s mystery is solved. In this stage all patterns of events accomplish some artistic or emotional effect. There is resolution of some sort. Whether the hero attains his/her goals or not, he/she is transformed.
Monomyth or Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell
More on Campbell’s Monomyth and the Hero’s Journey: Monomyth or Hero’s Quest
Joseph Campbell‘s monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many narratives from around the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). An enthusiast of novelist James Joyce, Campbell borrowed the term monomyth from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell and other scholars, such as Erich Neumann, describe narratives of Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Christ in terms of the monomyth. Campbell argues that classic myths from many cultures follow this basic pattern. Stages of the monomyth or quest motif are divided into several categories. You can read more about each category here: 17 Stages of the Monomyth.
1) Departure: the call to adventure, refusal of the call, supernatural aid, the crossing of the first threshold, belly of the whale.
2) Initiation: the road of trials, meeting with the goddess, woman as temptress, atonement with the father, apotheosis, and ultimate boon.
3) Return: refusal of return, the magic fight, rescue from without, crossing the return threshold, master of two worlds, freedom to live.