Structure and Story Shapes

During my high school and undergraduate writing classes, I largely ignored Freytag’s pyramid. It was just a grammar rule for writing, like when to use apostrophes – important to know, but not something I would want to print out and hang on my wall.

Freytag’s Pyramid

This is the image of story structure I grew up with. It’s angular and uninspiring. The sections of story feel separated, and the climax is too neatly placed in the middle.

Writing shapes really begin to come alive for me when they focus on character instead of story elements. Kurt Vonnegut draws the shapes of a few timeless stories in this video:

But what really speaks to me is the story structure outlined in screenwriting. When I took a screenwriting class as a graduate student, I felt like all of the secrets of fiction writing hidden for years had been revealed.

Screenwriters aren’t shy about discussing story structure and plotting in a straightforward way.

What this story shape conveys to me, more than anything else, is the concept of forward momentum. The turning points push the character farther and farther into story. You can’t write unimportant scenes, because every action needs to walk the character closer to the point of no return. Your character is going to change, or this isn’t going to be a story.

I also like that the climax is right at the end of this story shape. It is something your story should build to for a long time. Freytag’s pyramid throws my sense of story-balance off-kilter with its centrally-placed climax.

Stories are less like a mountain, more like a train. You have to keep stoking the engine, fueling it as you push your character through each new barrier that falls on the tracks.

If you’re writing a screenplay this month for Script Frenzy, then make sure you visit their Writer’s Resources page (you don’t have to sign up in order to view these documents, so go ahead and peruse the guides if you’re interested!)

One of the best resources on this page is the “Hollywood Formula” Worksheet. This worksheet walks you through plot structure, explaining each plot point. Whether you’re writing a screenplay, comic book script, or a short story, I think this guide can be extremely useful. Frenzy on, my fellow writers!

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4 thoughts on “Structure and Story Shapes

  1. Eliza says:

    I totally agree! I was first introduced to the concepts behind screenwriting through Larry Brook's Storyfix blog, where he takes those ideas and interprets them through his lens of writing novels. I felt like everything finally made sense. I'm working on internalizing those ideas, so my structures will feel both organic and satisfying.

    Also, note to self: Do ScriptFrenzy next year. Are you participating?

  2. Jenni Moody says:

    Hey Eliza! I'd forgotten about Brook's blog. I need to revisit it! 🙂

    I'm not fully participating in Script Frenzy this year since I am finishing my thesis right now. After I get my thesis turned in, I'm going to try and write at least part of a screenplay just to clear my head a bit. 🙂 If you write a screenplay next year I'd love to read it! Maybe we could start a mini-screenplay crit group. 🙂

  3. Jenni Moody says:

    Ah! Those notebooks are too cute! I want fifty of them all lined up on my bookshelf, each with a separate story inside. 🙂

    Alright! The world needs more good sf films. And who better to write them than we ACAMF? 🙂 Maybe we could set up a script exchange? I'm aiming to have one done by the end of summer. 🙂

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