Gustav Freytag was a German novelist and playwright who lived 1816 to 1895. None of his novels or plays is highly thought of today, except that in 1863 he wrote Die Technik des Dramas (The Technique of Play Writing) in which he explained a system for dramatic structure, which has come to be known as Freytag’s Pyramid. According to Freytag, there are five acts in a drama: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. These can be diagrammed as a horizontal line, a rising line reaching a peak, and falling line and a horizontal line.
Exposition, the first horizontal line, introduces the main characters and their situation. In Rising Action, represented by the rising line, the protagonist begins to understand his goal and moves toward it. The Climax, represented by the peak, is the turning point in the story – the point where a key decision is made. Falling Action, which is represented by the falling line, is the stage when the ‘villain has the upper hand’ and things go wrong. Denouement, which corresponds to the final horizontal line, is the stage when the villain and the protagonist reach an understanding and where the loose ends are tied up.
While I wasn’t familiar with this model at the time, it is fair to say that Fishing in Foreign Seas follows this model. In the Exposition stage, Jamie, the promising young American, and Caterina, the beautiful daughter of an Italian wine-making family meet, fall in love and are married. In Rising Action, Jamie takes a job with Ceemans, a manufacturer of heavy electrical equipment, and is promoted to higher levels of responsibility while moving with his young family from Boston to Philadelphia to Atlanta. Toward the end of this stage he is presented with the opportunity to win a $300 million order, and we watch him overcome obstacles to have the order within reach. The climax occurs when he loses the order, and is tempted into an affair with his secretary. Falling Action deals with the outcomes of these decisions, and Denouement is the final chapter, told from the perspective of his children.
The Freytag Pyramid does not fit Sin & Contrition at first glance, because this novel is structured so that each chapter deals with a particular sin committed by one of more of the six characters. But instead of one pyramid for the entire book, there are a series of pyramids, one for each chapter. In each chapter, the character and his or her situation is presented. Then comes the temptation which reaches a climax when the sin is committed. The results of the sin become apparent, and the character reaches a state of equilibrium. What is different about Sin & Contrition is that there is a series of chapters at the end of the novel in which I interview each of the characters, and we discuss their feelings and thoughts about the sin(s) they have committed. So, in this sense some on the Denouement takes place in those interviews.
We may not have been familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid but it is a useful way of considering how a plot is structured. It seems to me that it is often an accurate picture of the major events in our lives.