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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I spend way too much time thinking about story structure–and as a result am unhappy with the ways it’s usually represented. Gustav Freytag’s is the most common approach. In 1863, the German novelist invented his 5-part “pyramid”:

Freytag had 5-act Tragedy in mind, with each part corresponding to an act. That’s not how his pyramid is understood today, since the “climax” of a plot always occurs near the end. We would now call Freytag’s “climax” a turning point. Since that throws off the visual representation, sometimes the pyramid is shortened (often on a graph representing time) into what is a lot closer to a cliff:

 

That still seems wrong to me. Not only are the “falling action” and the “resolution” (or denouement) hard to differentiate, but the status quo at the beginning and the restored status quo at the end shouldn’t be identical because it’s really a new status quo–one that resembles the old one but only after it’s been achieved and altered by the story itself. So instead of a confusing post-climax descent down the mountainside, I see a plateau that restores the old order but at a new, post-story elevation:

 

But even correcting for shape, I don’t love Freytag’s terms. Contemporary versions of the cliff helpfully add “inciting incident” between exposition and rising action, but I think Tzvetan Todorov’s core terms are better: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. In 1969, the structuralist offered a different 5-part approach, this time using a circle:

The circularity makes the return to order explicit, but to clarify again that it’s not a total return you’d have to angle the circle to reveal that’s it’s actually a spiral:

Spirals are harder to draw than pyramids, so I get why Freytag is more popular. For comics, cognitive psychologist Neil Cohn invented what he terms visual grammar, with six types of narrative panels, which I’ll paraphrase:

  • Orienter: introduces setting for a later interaction (no tension).
  • Establisher: introduces elements that later interact (no tension).
  • Initial: begins the interactive tension.
  • Prolongation: continues the interactive tension.
  • Peak: high point of interactive tension.
  • Release: aftermath of interactive tension.

This seems less about grammar and more about plot to me. If you combine the first two types, Cohn’s panels map onto Freytag. Orieinters and Establishers are exposition; Initials are inciting incidents; Prolongations are rising actions; Peaks are climaxes; and Releases are resolutions.

Cohn doesn’t visually represent his panels as a pyramid or anything else, and since I prefer Todorov’s equilibrium/disequilibrium terms, I wondered if I could extract panels from his circle. Though he labels five parts, the first and last are the same:

 Drawn as a kind of comic strip, his approach would look something like this:

Those panels all look basically alike to me and so aren’t a great visual representation system. So I went back to Freytag and boxed the same five corresponding elements:

The comic strip version looks like this:I swapped out “disequilibrium” because “balance” is visually more precise: set a carpenter’s balance inside the first and last panels and it will literally balance.  And the middle “disequilibrium” panel is imbalanced in the same sense. I stuck with “climax” because it’s such a ubiquitous term, but kept Todorov’s “disruption.” Note how those two panels visually mirror each other, just as they do conceptually: the first disrupts balance; the second restores it.

Also, if you go back to Todorov’s spiral, the first moment of incline corresponds with disruption and the flattening into the next circle corresponds with climax–the stark angles of the pyramid are just easier to see:

Though Freytag began as a pyramid, Todorov as a circle, and Cohn as panel types, this approach unifies them.


[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins right here and continues here and here and ends here.]

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