Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Non-endings in Storytelling

Man, Frank R. Stockton was such a punk.

So, there’s a lot of bad endings in the world of stories.  I’m not talking about downer endings, those can actually be quite good no matter how sad they may be.  I’m talking about those blatant sequel hooks, rushed finales, story threads you’ve been waiting for the conclusion on that never finish up, works that just skip the denouement entirely, and the like.  Narrative tricks that stop the story without finishing it.  Non-endings.  Non-endings have been around for quite a while.  Longer than you or I.  Frank R. Stockton punking it up all over the 19th century is proof enough for that.  It seems they’ve been getting more and more frequent in the modern age, though, as pretty much every writing industry gets more competitive, as serial fiction gets more popular, as more creators either get lazy or try to leave things open for the follow up.  It’s easy to see why.  Endings are really, really hard in the first place.  Keeping track of all the myriad threads you’ve opened up?  That’s for nerds!  And hey, if you set things up so that people have to keep with your story beyond the initial work in order to get a satisfactory conclusion?  Who cares if it’s manipulative as all hell!  There’s dollars/ego at stake!

Yeah, so non-endings abound, they’re getting more pervasive, and a lot of authors seem really, really attached to them.  They also make all of your stories worse, though.  And I’ve got the science, in the form of pretty line graphs and century old literary theories, to prove it.  And you can’t doubt any of it.  I got my Bachelor of Science degree.  See, “Science”.  It’s right in the name.

Anyways, once upon a time there was this guy called Gustav Freytag, better known to modern literary historians as the Frey-Dawg.  The Frey-Dawg was a novelist and playwright who wrote some things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re European or something, but he moonlighted as a literary critic because nothing picks up women in the 1800’s like talking smack about Shakespeare that they’ll never understand.  Remember than in case you ever get your hands on a time machine.  It was in the latter field that the Frey-Dawg truly made his mark on history.  Check this out.

2000px-Freytags_pyramid.svg

This is Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.  Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Dramatic Structure because your English teacher had all the personality of a brick wall.  This showcases what is just about the most basic plot structure you can have and still have a story anybody’s going to want to read.  That line could represent a lot of things, like tension, pace, reader’s interest, the amount of changes being made, whatever.  You could argue about that for years, and it really doesn’t matter.  It’s something you feel mostly by impulse, what specifically it is doesn’t make a difference.  Basically, this plot structure sees your hero kicking it in his crib at the start, spends a bit of time showing you the base level of what the story-world is, before shaking it all up with the Inciting Incident.  Said Inciting Incident starts up the rising action, with the hero progressing through the plot and leading up to the big “Luke, I Am Your Father” moment at the climax.  After the climax, the story stops introducing new elements and focuses on wrapping up the threads it does have, the mysteries have been uncovered, the hero is whaling on the bad guy, that sort of thing.  Then there’s no more to do, and you hit the denouement, where all the happily ever after happens, and the story sets the stage for the life you’ll assume the characters and world will have after you put the book down.

The Frey-Dawg built this pyramid strictly with five-act Greek and Shakesperian dramas in mind, but you can actually fit most stories ever since mankind was hanging around in caves telling tales of rocks mating into something approaching this mold.  Not only is this such a basic measure of storytelling, this also outlines what are usually the minimum requirements to tell what most readers will consider to be a ‘complete’ story.  This is generally what it takes to satisfy readers.  This is the structure that most simply fills the needs of storytelling.

Of course, tastes in narratives change over time.  While this structure fit a lot, possibly even most, of stories up through the early 1900s, most modern authors and readers alike prefer something considerably more complicated.  Modern storytelling tends to extend the rising action greatly, pushing the climax back into the endgame, and adding in a lot of mini-climaxes or complications on the way there.  Both the exposition and the denouement tend to be shorter, establishing the baseline and wrapping things up a lot faster compared to the time spent on the main thrust of the plot.  You have little bits of falling action interspersed among the rising action, then the main fall happens over a lot less time than Shakespeare would give it.  So, for an example of how Frey-Dawg would work that structure around a modern story, here’s the pyramid for an absolute masterpiece I just spent the last five minutes thinking up.  Man, I’m awesome.

Modern story freytag

Don’t get too stunned by how amazing I am.  We still have some talking to do.  So, the important part, at least for our discussion today, is at the end there, the bit starting right after the climax.  Even in modern-day stories, where the post-climax period is a lot shorter, our stories still have a period where they wind down, then plateau before THE END.  That is vitally important.  That is what you need to have a good, satisfying ending, no matter how happy or sad your conclusion is.

And that is what all these various non-endings fail at.  Frey-Dawg clearly showed future generations just what it takes, and our storytellers are just stomping all over it.  These endings suck because they fail to take into account the basic needs of a finale, as demonstrated by Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.

Let’s take a look at exactly how these work out.  There’s three main structures these bad endings tend to fall into.

No Ending

2000px-Freytags_pyramid skipped ending

Let’s imagine for a moment.  Close your eyes.  Like, continue reading while you’re doing it, but close your eyes.  Picture a really, really hot person of your desired sex.  The most beautiful person you can think of.  And hey, that image in your mind right now?  That’s pretty much exactly what I look like!  Anyways, you just went out on this amazing date with that person.  You did all your favorite things, had your favorite dinner at the world’s best restaurant, and your date is totally into you.  They laughed at all your jokes, kept putting the charm on themselves, and they even figured out that weird sex thing you’re into and they’re completely cool with it.  You are absolutely nailing it.  They’ve been giving you those eyes all night long.  You know, those eyes.  Man, I love those eyes!  As you get in the car to head home, they make it clear.  The date may be over, but the night’s far from ending.

You’ve barely stepped inside the front door before things start getting steamy.  You don’t even remember how you got here, so focused you were on your mate’s body and their rapidly disappearing clothes, but you’ve found yourself in bed, your night’s date on top of you, working you like you’ve never been worked before.  You never knew sex could be so intense, and you find yourself rapidly building towards climax.  Second after second, you get closer and closer, and you’re only moments away from that oh so beautiful release.  Feeling it coming you lay back, close your eyes…

And your partner just disappears.  He or she just disappears.  Vanishes into thin air.  All you’re left with is the smell of latex and a whole lot of frustration.

And that is EXACTLY what it’s like when stories finish up without having an actual resolution.  When a narrative ends without a denouement.  Of all the ending types, this is probably the most painful.  It offends our innate sense of story.  All those plot threads are built up, have roped you in, yet they’re cut off in the end without ever being tied up.  This is the story that gets you in, makes you interested in where it’s going, then never tells you where it actually goes.

Frank R. Stockton, notorious punk of the literary world, has the primo example of this type.  You may not know his name, but if your high school English teacher hated you personally, you probably know his story.  The Lady and the Tiger.  Never in the history of humankind has there ever been a greater example of punkitude.  Basically, for those who had happy teenage years that I’m about to ruin, the tale concerns a dude at trial.   Brother had game, enough so that he started shacking up with the princess of the land.  Chica’s dad didn’t like that, because the never do, but since he was king, he actually had the power to do something about it.  He set the dude up in a trial by fate, pretty much, sticking him in an arena where he had two doors to choose from.  Behind one, this wicked sweet tiger ready for the mauling.  Behind the other, some woman the princess hated, who would be committed into marriage with the dude.  Princess figures out which is behind which door, and tells the dude to pick one.  So, does the dude end up with the woman the princess hates?  Or is the princess a complete and total psychopath who’d rather he be dead than alive and beyond her reach.

We’ll never know the answer, because the Punk of the East Blue just ends the story there, asking the reader to figure it out themselves.  I suppose it’s worth noting that Stockton seemed to be using this as a means of experimenting with the medium.  And really, that’s always worth trying out.  And The Lady and the Tiger is an interesting work because of it, on an academic level.  But it went beyond academic for me.  I actually had to read that crap.  And you know what?  Skipping the ending never leads to a good story.

Since then, there’s been a lot of works that have pulled this bull honky, but rather than being a way of playing with the form, they’re playing this straight.  Honestly “trying” to make a good story out of it.  This happens a lot with anime, where the manga often outlasts the adaptation based on it.  Other solid examples include the Sopranos, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, way too many horror films and books to count, Mirror’s Edge, and Mass Effect 3.  L.A. Noire provides an interesting example, in that the writers seemingly thought they hit a denouement by wrapping up the story of the Main Character when they had actually opened the plot up a lot further than the lead and did nothing to bring a resolution to that.  Watchmen is another interesting example in that it pulls this, but actually makes for a really strong ending in doing so, thus proving that even the bad ideas can make for good stories in the right circumstances, no matter how many paragraphs some phenomenally sexy video games bloggers may write against them.  You’ll also see this a lot in student work and from new authors.  Endings are probably the hardest part of fiction to write, so it’s not uncommon to have freshmen authors just give all their characters Bear AIDS in the end.

Cliffhanger/Last Minute Sequel Hook

Do I really need to give examples here?  You’ve seen this all over the place already.  Let’s see what this looks like.

2000px-Freytags_pyramid Cliffhanger

You probably don’t know anything of the plot around this, you may not even know what show this is from (I don’t on either count) but you probably know exactly what I’m talking about when I ask “Who Shot JR?”  This cliffhanger infuriated so many of its day that it has eclipsed the series it spawned from in the public mindspace.  And in spite of the resentment it caused, it brought in a lot of views and money to whatever show it came from.  Hence why everybody started picking cliffhangers up, seeking to get a piece of that sweet, sweet viewer pie.

Basically, what goes on here, when an author is introducing a cliffhanger or a last-minute sequel hook into the end of the work, is they’re starting the next story within the denouement of this existing work.  To use the sexy-times example we covered above, this would be if your date just finished up giving you the ride of your life, and you find yourself slipping into a state of post-coital bliss.  Rather than letting you rest and enjoy that, though, they start talking, and demanding your attention as they jump around the room, and cap off by dragging you out to go get stuff to redecorate your house.  The big problem with this is that it absolutely ruins the emotional resolution of the work.  It’s really important, in the end of a story, to give a bit of time to have your emotions settle along with the tale.  Be happy for the couple that’s newly in love, sad for the warriors looking back on all they’ve lost, triumphant in the hero who saved his clan, whatever, so long as you are settling into a base state for it to end on.  The cliffhanger will twist it, getting you all worked up again, jumping you and the story into action again, then just leave you hanging.  It also offends our innate sense of completeness, opening up new story threads that go completely unresolved.

It is possible to have good sequel hooks that don’t ruin the ending.  It’s pretty common, in fact.  You just need to have it worked into more than just the finale.  Star Wars, a New Hope is a great example of how this is handled properly.  Sure, it was obvious they had written it with a sequel in mind.  They may have destroyed the Empire’s superweapon, but they had been making it very obvious the Empire was a force far larger than just the Death Star.  Darth Vader was still alive, but in no position to immediately do anything.  The heroes triumphed, and even though it didn’t solve all their problems, it still solved the most immediate and greatest one, fulfilled the audience’s sense of justice, and allowed for a great emotional resolution for every viewer following along.

Particularly egregious examples of this type include Alan Wake, pretty much every book of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Empire Strikes Back, the Mortal Kombat film, and Mass Effect 3.  It’s worth noting that, at least for the purposes of this article, I’m mostly referring here to works that go through a falling action, have an actual resolution, then start the cliffhanger from there.  Works that end on a cliffhanger right after the climax with no denouement at all, such as Catching Fire, are probably better described in the No Ending section.

Oh yeah, and you can open your eyes now.  Sorry, should have mentioned that before.

Rushed Ending

2000px-Freytags_pyramid Rushed ending

Here’s perhaps the most subjective ending type on this list.  So, every story needs an ending of some sort.  Most authors will elect to include a denouement, because they actually care that their reader experiences a good story.  Problem is that authors have deadlines, or page limits, or just aren’t as interested in the wind down and the finale as they were the buildup, or don’t have as many ideas on how to close everything out.  Whatever the source is, what you end up with is an ending that doesn’t spend the time on things that really need it.  As a result, while plot threads may close up, they don’t do so in a satisfying manner, and you really lose a lot of the impact many of the ending moments should have.  This would be the endings where you really feel the presence of the author, and the author is breaking the story down.  You’ll commonly start to see the story’s internal logic breaking down, the number of deus ex machinas rise, more major events happen off-screen, and all the shocking swerves and major character deaths will start to feel more like the author is checking things off a checklist rather than coming about them organically.  And most importantly you just won’t feel the shifts and changes of the story as it moves into its denouement.  Things will happen, but the pace at which the story moves will make it hard to reflect on them.

While this still has the basic structure of the normal Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid, visually, in practice it’s a whole different beast.  As you see up there, the post-climax action doesn’t so much fall as it plummets.  What’s important about the ending structure outlined by they Frey-Dawg is that you ease the reader down before the denouement.  This type of ending just drops the reader entirely.

In terms of our ill-fated sexual encounter, this would be as if your partner, wonderful lover that they are, took their time bringing you to the very heights of ecstasy.  Then, just as you begin to climax, they leap off of you and cling to your ceiling, and you’re left to orgasm alone.  Your date uses a free hand to begin tugging at their beautiful, beautiful face.  It turns out they were wearing an Aether Mask, which they swiftly remove to reveal the face of Terry Goodkind!  Goodkind cackles for a bit, then rushes, still naked, out your front door, never to be seen again.

Yeah, Terry Goodkind pretty much built his career on these rushed endings.  He writes such long-form rising actions, lavishly detailing each scene and writing extensive conversations over the course of each book in the Sword of Truth series, opening up countless plot questions and answering almost none.  Then, when you’re at page 775 of your 800 page book, he’ll start wrapping things up as quickly, and with as little explanation, as he can.  Characters who fervently believe one thing will change immediately to the opposite on the merest suggestion by the main character, major deaths will go absolutely unexplored, and big changes will happen with absolutely no foreshadowing or explanation.  Dude even gave his lead magic that explicitly does whatever the plot needs to make this happen.  Getting drawn into these books over the course of the extensive build up becomes almost physically painful upon hitting the end.

For a more universal example, let’s take a look at the Harry Potter series.  You remember the final book?  How they spent most of the story just learning, and finding things, and preparing, and then when it was finally time to throw down, everyone died all over the place but it was really hard to care, and the final move in the battle just seems to come out of nowhere?  Yeah.  That’s this one.  Other notable examples include the Animorphs series, a lot of Joss Whedon’s works, Kingdom Hearts II, Xenosaga, and Mass Effect 3.  It’s hard to say what a good example of this would be, as by definition, it stems out of the writer seeming to lose control of the reader.  If a rushed ending was good, it wouldn’t feel rushed.

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6 responses to “Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Non-endings in Storytelling

  1. I’ve always been a stickler for how a story ends. Indeed, one of my supplemental rules when critiquing is that the highest score a game with a lousy ending can get is a 6/10 (my rating system applies to other mediums as well), which means something along the lines of, “Maybe check it out; you might get more out of it than I did. Just don’t be surprised if you walk away disappointed.”

    I’ve said in the past that I remember ultimately being very disappointed in System Shock 2 because its ending was completely stupid. I still think it’s interesting that a game with such a glaring flaw is still considered a classic. Despite its cult following, I believe that BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are much better games. I think the conclusion of System Shock 2 was meant to be a sequel hook, but because a sequel was never made, it just became a terrible ending. Half-Life 2 would have been another example, but it got a sequel, so it was saved (current series status notwithstanding). Sequel hooks are only wise if you know you’re going to make another game; otherwise, it’s just rude.

    Actually, I think these drawings illustrate another problem I’ve occasionally run into: terrible character arcs. I remember commenting about a game I’ve reviewed that I felt cheated because the main character had an arc that was largely off-screen. We see the tragic event that caused him to become a bitter person, but then the story skips ahead several years, so the only parts of that transformation we see are the two endpoints. He did somewhat evolve throughout the game proper, but the ending negated whatever goodwill was established by that development. Compare to say Far Cry 3 or Spec Ops: The Line (or another game I’ve played, but can’t say the name of because it would be a doozy of a spoiler) where every part of the proverbial slide down the slippery slope is presented to the player.

    I’m not sure if I’ve played a game that had a blatantly rushed ending (System Shock 2 is probably the closest example I can think of right now). Though I never played a lot of them myself, I heard that was a major problem Square had in the mid-to-late nineties with many of their PlayStation releases. They apparently build this epic story only to lack any sort of satisfying payoff. Compare to say Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, or Bravely Default where you feel a true sense of accomplishment and closure upon completion.

    This article also reminds me of a lesson I learned all the way back in elementary school where we were learning how to write persuasive essays. I remember my teacher said to have three main points. We were then told to arrange them in a way so that we mention our second-strongest argument first, our weakest argument second, and our strongest argument last. Fiction writers could learn from this; a problem with a lot of these stories seems to be that they start off with their best ideas and completely run out of steam by the end.

    Putting effort into the ending of your story is important. If the ending is bad, your story ceases being good as soon as it concludes. If the ending is great, your story is good forever.

  2. There’s good reason for being a stickler on endings. As you said, the lasting quality of a story relies on the strength of its ending. A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing. There’s been a few stories I haven’t followed all the way through to the end for just that reason, because I’ve enjoyed what I’d been through thus far, but could easily see the ending screwing it up and didn’t want it to ruin everything.

    I think games, especially older ones, often get a free pass on bad endings in the public eye due to the fact that players don’t always make it to the end. Books and movies, if you start, you usually go all the way through, but not so much with games for most players. Happily, this seems to be changing, especially with more story-oriented games. Whether good or ill, the Mass Effect 3 riots certainly proved that. Still, I think a lot of older games get grandfathered in, and plenty of designers are still going by the old school, where they’d better put all their good ideas up front because that’s the part everyone’s going to play.

    You’re onto to something there. By the nature of this dramatic structure, it should apply to most any type of arc, whether character arc, as you mentioned, plot arc, episodic arc, etc. Granted, the rules will change from application to application, as will the exact shape and, to some degree how well this fits, but that’s one thing I think a lot of English teachers don’t really appreciate fully. Due to how basic Freytag’s Pyramid is, it can apply to a whole lot of situations.

    Let’s see…. not sure what games you might have played, but beyond the three games I mentioned above, the pre-Broken Steel Fallout 3 had a pretty rushed ending, although it wasn’t too egregious considering the main plot didn’t have too many moving parts to begin with. Xenogears also supposedly has one of the most massive rushed endings ever as the developers lost their budget before finishing, but I’ve never played it, so I can’t speak to that. Indigo Prophecy also has a pretty massive rushed ending. I vaguely remember thinking Mother 3 had an unduly clipped ending, but I’ve only played it once years ago and I don’t really recall the details of its finale now, beyond having a hard time making sense of it. But yeah, now that you mention it, a lot of Squeenix’s PS1 era games definitely had troubled endings. I think Final Fantasy 7 had it the worst, but FF8 and Parasite Eve had particularly egregious ones as well.

    • When reviewing old-school games, I try to hold them up to modern-day standards. I know it’s not entirely fair because design philosophies have changed, but the truth is that some games simply aren’t worth playing anymore despite the cult following’s insistence to the contrary. That said, one of my other supplemental rules is that 4/10 is the lowest score I can award a game that made a significant, positive impact on the medium’s history.

      I have to say that System Shock 2 also takes a while for it to start being consistently good. In other words, it takes a lot of effort to get into and the ending leaves you disappointed. That’s just about the worst way one could structure a game. Games like that will never be grandfathered in my book.

      I’d say that Mother 3 didn’t really end as much as it ran out of energy and died (though unduly clipped is an apt description). Furthermore, its vagueness did not complement the way the rest of the game was written. Though unlike System Shock 2, the ending was not quite the main problem I had with that game. I think it suffers from the exact opposite problem as the original Mother, whose defining flaw is that the story has so little presence that the player will often have no idea what to do in order to advance. The story of Mother 3, on the other hand, is overbearing and actively makes the gameplay worse. This means that the quality is very erratic until about the fourth chapter or so (and then it ends up being shorter than Earthbound). If anything, it actually resembles your awesome interpretation of the pyramid.

      Speaking of which, I do remember reading a Let’s Play of Chrono Cross and, if I recall correctly, the ending of that game made no sense either. Sad thing is that Square’s propensity of getting crushed by their misplaced ambition would only get worse with time.

      I wonder what else Freytag’s Pyramid could be applied to?

      • That’s something I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about lately, whether to judge classic games on the merits of the time or compared with the whole spectrum of gaming up to the modern day. The way you’re doing it, I think, makes sense for most discussions about it, but it’s hard, for me at least, to stay objective with the games I played in their native environments. I’ve been playing both Wasteland and Dragon Quest, two very early forms of video game RPGs, and I’ve found that, even though they have very similar flaws, I’m naturally enjoying the one I played back when I was a kid, a lot closer to when they originally came out, than I am the one I’m just picking up now. I’m really enjoying the one I played back then a lot more than the one I didn’t, even though they’re very similar games, and I think it’s because I’m judging one in modern context but not the other.

  3. I think you’re on to something as well. If you played a game back when it was still new and innovative, your experience can mitigate the aspects newcomers would find tedious or unintuitive. It’s like when I played Ultima IV. I truly appreciate the impact it had on RPGs, but playing it was more like a homework assignment than anything else. I think you’re exactly right when you mentioned judging old games with the context of modern game design. I had no choice but to judge Ultima IV in context of when I played it about two years ago, as playing the game in its native environment is something I’ll never get to experience.

    To be honest, I think a lot of NES RPGs are like that – you’re more likely to enjoy them if you played them when they were new. That’s the reason I didn’t think the original Mother was all that good despite what the fandom has to say about it – Earthbound made it obsolete. The first JRPG I had ever played was Super Mario RPG. Because that game set the standard for me, I think the odds of me enjoying any JRPG from the NES generation (or even some early SNES ones) were slim from the very beginning.

    I wonder what critically-acclaimed works from this decade will end up not resonating with later generations because they missed out on experiencing the games in their native environments? I’ve said that I don’t see The Last of Us holding up, but to be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, I think the same could be said of Uncharted 2. Those games look pretty, but I can see both of them being surpassed in the long run – and that won’t be hard to do because they’re good in ways that can be outdone without potential detractors accusing this hypothetical work of being a rip-off. Having said that, I see Uncharted 2 holding up slightly better because its gameplay had more polish and the action sequences were amazing. The Last of Us relied too heavily on its story, which wasn’t all that unique to begin with, and as a third-person shooter, it was pretty forgettable. I just don’t see gamers of later generations appreciating The Last of Us the way this one does. I could be wrong though.

  4. Pingback: Start Strong, End Strong | Extra Life

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