What makes a story a story? Is it the characters? The plot? The lesson being taught? For something to be constituted as a story, does it have to have any of these elements? Some would say that a story is not a story without the “essentials.” Although I am a sucker for good and meaningful stories, I’d have to argue that a story doesn’t need to follow any sort of structure for it to be an enjoyable story with a moral at the end. To be completely real,in the moment, life, for example, sometimes doesn’t follow any sort of structure. We usually look back on experiences and are able to construct a narrative of what happened that most likely ends with us learning something from the experience. It isn’t until we look back that we are able to see the story. But, that discussion is for another day. To understand how a story that lack’s structure can still be a good story, we first have to understand what the structure is that most stories are built around.
Freytag’s Pyramid (Dramatic Structure)
First off, who is Freytag, and why did he make a pyramid?
Gustav Freytag (1816-1895) was a German author and playwright. Freytag states in his book Die Technik Das Dramas or Freytag’s Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art (1863) that although Aristotle established laws regarding drama, and this includes literature as well, the rules that he made were over 2,000 years old and that the human race had “grown more than two thousand years older” (1). With humans being both older and more advanced in some ways, Freytag decided that it was high time that these rules went through a modification to fit with the times. He claims that the rules laid down by the Ancients like Aristotle were “limitation[s that] easily seem[ed] to us the death of free artistic creation.” He continues saying that “Never was a greater error” than such a system of restraints put upon storytelling (2).
So, Freytag did what anyone does that has a beef with the system. He changed it. Instead of continuing the use of a Greek sanctioned, mathematical, and mechanical set of rules, he ironically decided to change it out with his own semi-equation-like pyramid. I’m not mathematician, but this new system sure as hecks seems pretty geometric. All joking aside, this pyramid has served as the guidelines for many stories both on the stage and on the page. Think of your favorite movie, television show, or play. Let’s look at Freytag’s pyramid first to get a feel for what it’s all about.
This structure sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I’ll throw a favorite movie of mine and we’ll see how it fits. Batman Begins.
Let’s start with the Exposition. Bruce Wayne goes to the theatre with his mom and dad. He is frightened by the bats in the play. We see that Bruce has a fear he needs to overcome. His parents decide to leave the theatre so that Bruce can feel safe. As they stroll through the wet, dark alleys of Gotham City, BAM! Inciting Incident #1 – Enter Mr. Joe Chill aka “the bad guy.” Chill attempts to rob the Waynes and fails to do so, so he shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne… BAM! BAM!
Bruce is left with a fear of bats, two dead parents, and a lot of heated anger toward Mr. Chill. Bruce, as an adult, decides to kill Chill once he gets out of prison. Someone else beats him to it. He runs away to Asia to join the League of Shadows. There he meets Ra’s al Ghul. Inciting Incident #2 – Bruce realizes that the League of Shadows is bad and that they want to destroy Gotham because they think Gotham is bad. Bruce Runs away and decides to overcome his fear of bats by building the Bat Cave. Rising Action – Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows come to Gotham and try to destroy Gotham. Complication – Ra’s al Ghul burns down Bruce’s mansion. Bruce is upset. Climax – League of Shadows attempts to fill Gotham’s water supply with drugs that make people hallucinate and kill each other. With the help of Commissioner Gordon, Lucious, and Rachel, Bruce is able to locate Ra’s and attempts to stop him. They fight on a train. The rails are destroyed, the train crashes, the city is saved, and Ra’s al Ghul gets ghosted. Falling Action – the city needs to be fixed because of all the crazy chaos that the League insinuates. Bruce has to find a new house because his mansion is ashes. Resolution – Batman becomes the symbol of justice and safety that Gotham needs. Because of how popular Batman becomes, he gets a calling card from the Joker saying that he’d like to hang out sometime. Sequel? Fade to black. Credits.
So, most movies follow this pyramid in some way or another. If you want to test it, just plug in your favorite movie or television show and give it a whirl. But, what happens when this pyramid isn’t followed? Can the story be a good one? Or does this make the story not worth reading or watching. In some cases, a lack of structure can make a story less desirable, but in the case of Mark Twain’s 1865 short story The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County the lack of a central story and the apathy expressed by the narrator toward the only thing that resembles a story can help us see stories in a different light and recognize that not all stories need structure for them to be considered good stories.
Being a contemporary of Freytag, Twain was probably aware of this “new” dramatic structure. But, just like he always does, he tears it apart and shows how ridiculous it is. Twain was a master of his craft. His sharp and oftentimes stinging criticism, accompanied by his use of local and distinct dialects in his characters are among a few of the reasons why he is considered one of the greatest American authors of the 19th century. His fame and influence has survived well into the 21st century. This notoriety also comes from his breaking away from normal narratives of his time and becoming one of the leaders of American Realism in literature.
His amphibious tale does something that sets it apart from a lot of his other works. He takes Freytag’s Pyramid deconstructs it brick by brick. In this short story, Twain gives a personal narrative of how the narrator, in search of his friend’s friend Reverend Leonidas Smiley, is pranked into hearing the long winded legend of the Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County aka Dan’l Webster, as told by the tramp Simon Wheeler. After listening against his will to the story of a frog that “wanted [an] education, and could do ‘most anything,” the narrator realizes his mistake and takes his leave just before Mr. Jim Smiley is about to tell him about a “yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner” (104, 108). So, why is a story about a guy listening to a tramp tell story about a jumping frog worth reading? Well, the story inside the story (the one about the frog) and the narrator’s reaction to the story can help us understand how to see past a story and see real life.
The story itself has no real plot arc. The narrator gets tricked into listening to a pointless story and leaves disgruntled. But, the legend of Dan’l Webster the frog, although it ends in a very flat and unsatisfying way, follows some sort of structure. Exposition – Mr. Wheeler takes a very long time telling the narrator about Jim Smiley because he doesn’t know any Reverend Leonidas Smiley. He tells of how Jim Smiley is a betting man. Rising Action – Mr. Smiley finds a frog that can jump higher than any frog in the county. A stranger in the camp challenges Mr. Smiley’s frog to a contest to see who’s frog can jump the highest. Climax – The frog’s are primed to jump. Smiley fills Dan’l Webster “to the chin” with quail shot (don’t ask me why). Smiley and the stranger say “ready set go,” and… the stanger’s frog jumps while Resolution Dan’l Webster stays grounded. Mr. Smiley stands confounded as to why his frog didn’t jump. After dumping out the quail shots, old Dan’l Webster jumps like he did before. Smiley runs to challenge the stranger again, but isn’t able catch him. Although this story does follow the steps of Freytag’s Pyramid, it really doesn’t follow it in spirit. The resolution leaves the reader confused, a little upset, and like the narrator “lacking both time and inclination” to listen to any other stories.
The genius of this story is that it doesn’t need a story arc to be entertaining or to even present a thought provoking message to its readers. Twain, although a harsh critic of society and humans in general, shows the reality that sometimes stories don’t need to be structured to get their point across. Through subverting the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, Twain helps us understand that sometimes life has little to no structure, even when we try to organize, plan, and prepare. When this is the case in our own lives, all we need to do is see the ridiculous “jumping frog” moments in our day and learn to laugh at the supposed structure and oftentimes lack thereof in life generally.