Buster Scruggs - Freytag's pyramid

Freytag’s pyramid explained with an example – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Freytag’s pyramid is nothing more than a handy method to arrange the dramatic structure of the story in a way that is easily comprehensible for the person who’s reading/watching.

It’s particularly useful for amateur writers who tend to concentrate all of their energies into “micromanaging” their story.

Basically, those writers who tend to focus all their attention on writing good dialogue and good description but completely forget that their story needs to have a structure in order to be understandable.

Why is Freytag’s pyramid important?

A lot of people like to say that the 3 act structure is too conventional and that writers who write in non-chronological order (like Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) are the only ones who write stories that are not predictable.

What they forget to mention though, is the fact that despite not following a chronological order, their story still must follow the logic behind the infamous 3 act structure, which is the same principle behind Freytag’s pyramid.

Here’s an example of a terrible structure:

  • scene 1: the good guy fights the bad guy
  • scene 2: the good guy, in his deathbed, reflects on how futile and meaningless the reason for the fight was and regrets losing his life over it
  • scene 3: in a flashback, we’re back to the fight and see that the bad guy has left a fatal wound on the good guy by cheating

Are you invested in this story? Can you honestly say that you weren’t at least a little confused by the order of events?

Here’s the thing: stories need to be organized in a certain way to be comprehensible.

Movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento are not confusing because, even if the story is not following a linear timeline, we as audience members have all the information we need to understand what’s happening. And all those information are given to us at the right time, not in random order.

What is Freytag’s pyramid?

Freytag's pyramid illustration

Freytag’s pyramid is a way to organize the structure of a story in order to make it more comprehensible.

Gustav Freytag, some German guy, analyzed multiple plays and recognized a common pattern in the plot: five different “acts”, each with a specific function.

As you can see in the picture, this method divides the different acts into different levels:

  • Exposition and Denouement are at the bottom
  • Rising action and Falling action in the middle
  • Climax at the top

The pyramid was not made just to look pretty, the reason why the different acts are placed like that is that they each represent a different stage of tension or conflict.

The same way, Freytag decided to shape it like a pyramid to show that, in every story, the tension has to:

  • rise up (Hamilton pun not intended)
  • reach the peak
  • fall back down

Here’s an example of this principle in action with the latest movie from the Coen brothers.

The ballad of Buster Scruggs

This movie doesn’t tell on one long story, but it focuses on 6 different narratives with different protagonists, and all of those take place in the old west.

To explain how Freytag’s pyramid works, I’m going to focus on the first one about the gunslinger Buster Scruggs.

Exposition

In this part, the writer has to give the audience all the information they need in order to be invested.

That may sound like I’m saying that the characters have to sit down, face the camera, and go “I was born on the 20th of April of 19…” But no, that’s not what I mean.

In this part, you have to prioritize the essential information. So, you character’s birthday should come up only if it has a purpose immediately or if it will have one later in the story (that’s the Chekhov’s gun rule).

In the movie, the exposition part is right at the beginning, when we hear Buster look directly at the camera and talk about himself. We learn very little about him, just that he is a famous cowboy with a passion for poker and that he likes to sing.

The first tavern he enters is also part of the exposition. Because from this scene we learn two very important details:

  • he is friendly only with the people who treat him well but kills the ones who threaten violence
  • he is incredibly skilled with a gun

Rising action

Rising action in Buster Scruggs  - Freytag's pyramid

This is the part of the story when the escalation that will bring to the climax begins.

Now, every action counts and has a consequence that will lead to another action. The tension gradually rises, and the obstacles that the protagonist has to overcome get more and more difficult.

We’ve seen the dual nature of Buster Scruggs: friendly with friends and deadly with enemies. So when he enters a big saloon and asks a few poker players if he can join them, we can imagine the outcome if they are too hostile.

But there’s a difference this time: he doesn’t have his gun. This small change makes the scene unpredictable and avoids being a repetition of the same action scene we witnessed before.

Fortunately for him, Buster manages anyway to kill his opponent (or has he defines it: “more in the nature of a suicide”).

This action leads to the confrontation with the brother of the deceased, who wants revenge.

As we see that the man is clearly too upset to think straight and doesn’t look nearly as confident with a gun as our protagonist, we can predict what happens next. The guy is dead.

Climax

Climax in Buster Scruggs - Freytag's pyramid

The point where the tension reaches its highest peak and the fate of the protagonist is revealed.

This is the “Make it or Break it” moment for the protagonist, where he has to overcome the most difficult obstacle by far.

Buster has managed to easily clear the way of any foe he has met. So when a young cowboy shows up and challenges him, we think that we know what the outcome of this duel will be.

But, much to our surprise, this new character manages to defeat Buster Scruggs at his own game.

Falling Action

Can’t be top dog forever

We’ve reached the top of the pyramid, now we have to go back down.

The “Falling Action” is the signal that the story is about to end, it provides time to cool down and reflect on what happened before.

Well, Buster is dead. As his soul leaves his body, the cowboy dressed in black leaves the town singing a sad country song, showing that the late Buster and the man who defeated him are not so different after all.

Denouement / Conclusion

Most recent movies either don’t have an ending or have a really short one. To be honest, except The Return of the King I can’t think of a famous movie where the ending doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes.

But still, when this last part is used, it should be used well.

In the illustration of the Freytag’s pyramid, the ending is at the bottom, the same level of the Exposition. This is because those two have in common the fact that they don’t have to raise the tension and that they have to provide information to the audience.

The Exposition part tells the audience who the protagonist is and what he wants, the ending tells about what happened to the protagonist once the story is over.

There just gotta be a place up ahead when men ain’t low down and poker is played fair

Poor Buster is gone, but in a bittersweet note, he remarks that he has still hope to find a place where he can happily play poker and find honest people he can trust.

Freytag’s pyramid is a useful tool for inexperienced writers who need to understand the structure of a screenplay. And, as you can see with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it doesn’t make the story predictable, it just provides a guideline.


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