In the world of writing, there are dozens of structures and methods people have developed over the years. Some are used to describe standard formats for writing (like the epic, the novel, the play, the hero's journey), and others are methods for producing a written work (like the snowflake method).
How does it work, and how can you use it in your own writing? Let's dig in.
Freytag's Pyramid divides a piece of content, like a play, into seven steps.
Exposition is the first step. In marketing, it's equivalent to the top of the sales funnel, where you're building awareness. It's all about informing the audience of the background, setting, and scenario you're creating.
This can be the setting for a novel, the situation for a play, or the general industry vibes of a piece of marketing content.
The second step is the incident that causes the protagonist of your story to embark on their journey. A loved one gets sick, a family member is kidnapped, a debt is called in; there are as many possible inciting incidents as there are events in human history. Large scale or small, an inciting incident is what stirs up the status quo and pushes the protagonist to do something.
In the context of marketing, this is the part of a landing page or piece of content where you discuss the problem that the reader may be having. You've set the scenario already, and now you throw the wrench into the works. That thing you want to do? You can't do it with the tools you have. That process you need to handle? It takes a dozen hours a day. There has to be a better way!
The third step is less of a destination and more of a journey. It's the rising action, the sense of escalation as you go from the inciting incident to the climax of the journey. There's usually a complication, or many complications, along the way. In fiction, it's often through chance encounters with minor villains or repeated incidents that escalate the stakes. In horror movies, it's where the monster or the killer appears and stalks and terrifies, and even takes out the side characters along the way.
In marketing, this is the further escalation of the problems that arise. It's a systematic portrayal of the common ideas of how to solve the problem and why those ideas don't work, or have problems of their own, or lead to other problems down the line. The solution requires too much human input, it's not scalable, it's too expensive, and so on.
You might think it's odd to have the climax as number four out of seven, but it's actually pretty sensible. The reason here is that the phases aren't all equally long. The climax is near the end, and the steps after it are all cleanup and resolution (and, in modern media, sequel hooks.)
The climax is, of course, the top of the pyramid. It's the pitched battle with the villain, the moment the hero gains their power to overcome their conflict, the moment where unexpected aid steps in to turn the tide.
What about in marketing? This is, generally, where the unique value proposition comes into play. You've done the groundwork and explained everything a user needs to know why it's a good idea; now you hit them with the solution to the problem. "That better way? We have it for just four easy payments of $9.99."
Often, you think of anything actiony surrounding the climax as part of the climax and the calm afterward as the resolution. According to Freytag, however, there's a step in between; the falling action.
This is a de-escalating action sequence, but it's still part of the action. It's the part where the hero rescues the villain from falling to their doom, showing that the hero has matured, is stronger, is better, and is giving them a second chance. It's the part where the villain has a hell turn and helps fight off an even stronger force or hold back a disaster so the hero can escape in one final noble sacrifice. It's the sequence post-climax, before the calm after the storm, that nevertheless contains action itself.
In marketing, this is your post-CTA convincing. This is where you're giving the user further reasons why buying your product or using your service is a good idea. It's where you provide assurances that, should they be dissatisfied, they can get their money back. It's still closely related to the CTA – and often includes more CTAs itself – but it's not the primary call to action.
The resolution of the problem is the near-final phase of a piece of media. Everything has settled; the castle has collapsed, the villain is defeated, and there's nothing more to do but deal with the fallout and start putting the pieces back together. In many forms of media, this is where the heroes make some feel-good quips, the love interests get together, and the party laughs their way into the sunset.
In marketing, this is a little tougher. The resolution is the satisfied customer, so it's not usually part of the front-facing marketing. It's more about customer service, testimonials, and the narrative you build around your brand. Unlike in fiction, where the resolution is nearly the end of the piece, in marketing, it's just a way to feed back into the setting and rising action for another user who arrives late to the party.
Last on the pyramid, and a mirror of the start on the opposite side is the ending. It's typically short, a final resolution of the plotline, and a place for a sequel stinger to step just into view before the credits roll.
In marketing, of course, there's never truly an ending. One person's ending is just their new status quo, and that satisfaction feeds back into the action of a new customer.
One thing to note here is that Freytag's Pyramid has been through a lot over the years. It was, initially, only five steps; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The inciting incident and the ending steps were added after the fact, and while they add nuance to the discussion of narrative structures, purists will argue that they aren't part of the true Freytag's Pyramid. Either way, they can be useful for the discussion of storytelling, which is why they're included here.
Freytag's Pyramid is one structure among many possible structures. Old as it is, it's great at describing certain kinds of storytelling, more often the tragic play than anything else. Other structures are more general and more broadly applicable.
As a business, of course, you don't want your stories to end in tragedy. Freytag's Pyramid is an interesting conceptual breakdown of the overall structure of a story, but it's not entirely useful as a 1:1 structure for your content marketing.
There are, however, a few ways you can use the dramatic structure to influence your marketing and shape it more like storytelling.
For example, you can use the structure to tell the story of your brand. Many brands are, themselves, founded out of necessity, out of tribulation, out of conflict. An individual experiences a problem, finds no reasonable solution available to them, and decides to make that solution themselves.
You have your scenario. You have the problem as your inciting incident. You have the rising action of investigating the issue and finding no viable solutions. You have the climax of the decision to make that solution and the falling action of developing and growing it. Then there's the ending, the denouement; it's your turn, the reader, to step into the ring and take action. You pass the torch, in a sense.
Using a structure like Freytag's Pyramid helps you go through and define your brand story in a way that is most compelling to readers. As humans, we love stories and narratives; in a way, our entire culture is based on them. It's always more compelling to present a narrative than it is to present raw data.
Your marketing posits that there's a problem to be overcome and that there are people toiling to overcome it, either senselessly or with little alternative. Your product exists to help them overcome their challenges.
So, why not keep an eye on those customers and use their stories to your advantage?
It's relatively easy to develop a survey that you can send out to your most satisfied customers. When they answer it, you can distill their answers down into the same narrative structure as displayed in the pyramid. They have a problem, they have an incident, they do their researching, and they find you. They overcome their conflict in their own personal climax, and now their experience can guide others to follow in their footsteps. All the while, you're right there, adding narrative to their experience and using it as marketing.
With their permission, of course.
No matter what kind of writing you're producing, if you want to use a structure like Freytag's Pyramid, the key is using it properly. Contrary to what many people think, this doesn't mean strict adherence to the structure. Sure, there are millions of stories out there that follow a typical pyramid, hero's journey, or other structure. But, there are many more – many that are quite effective – that don't. There are entire literary movements based on stories with no ending, stories with no rising action, or stories that get to the climax early and keep the fever pitch up the whole way through.
When using something like Freytag's Pyramid in marketing, you're looking primarily at the way you can tell your own story, the story of your customers, and the story of your product in a compelling way. You want the people who read your content to grasp the narrative and follow along rather than take it in isolation.
If you view the climax and the call to action as largely the same – the point when the hero (or the reader) takes action – you can see how the build-up is generally the more important part of the structure. So it is with marketing.
After all, you're reaching a large audience with your surface-level exploration of a topic, but relatively few of them experience the inciting incident and dig deeper into your narrative to find out more. So, the key is to identify not just your own story, not just the stories of those customers you already have, but the stories-in-progress of the people you're reaching. You find their stories, and you present your own way to lead them through the pyramid. You resonate with them, so they follow along with you.
In a sense, you're using the narrative structure of the pyramid as a way to position yourself not as a protagonist but as a mentor figure to assist the protagonist. This concept steps away from the pyramid and back toward the hero's journey and gives you a role to play beyond what the pyramid usually encompasses.
The key, either way, is the storytelling itself. There are many different kinds of structures and ways to present a narrative, inside and outside of business. There's near-infinite analysis of these concepts and how they can apply to virtually any scenario. Your job is to pull from these what you can and analyze your own use of structure and storytelling to produce more compelling content for any purpose you're creating it.
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