When I teach plot in a literature or creative writing class, Freytag’s triangle is usually part of the lesson. (Picture a scalene triangle, with a long slope upward
on the left, and a shorter slope coming down on the right.) Good old Gustav came up with his triangle in the 19th century as a way of describing the structure of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, and as it’s taught now, it’s typically labeled with terms like “rising action,” “climax” and “denouement.” (The last always gives me pause, since, as a Southern Illinois native, I grew up hearing Beaucoup Creek pronounced “buck up.”)
Asked to teach a unit on storytelling to each of the four classes at the River Valley Elementary
Studio School, I wanted a way to translate this triangle for younger students. Here’s what I came up with:
Now we know.
I’m pleased to say the teachers at the Studio School have found this useful as they’ve continued to work on storytelling. Students will be writing and performing plays to demonstrate what they’ve
learned about the Oregon Trail.
When I told some of my UW-Richland students about my translation, a couple of them said, “Hey! How come you never explained it to us like that?” I will, henceforth.
We do need students to be able to tell stories well. Not just to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Not just to sharpen their analytical skills. Not just to make sure they transfer smoothly into upper-level creative writing courses and move one step closer to publication. All those things are important, of course, but what seems most important to me is that we want them to be able to tell their own stories, to themselves.
We want them, as Brené Brown says, to own their own stories. “If you own the story you get to write the ending,” she says in Daring Greatly. As UW-Richland’s psych professor, Dennis Carpenter, explained to me, the technical term for this is “cognitive appraisal.” Our reaction to what happens depends a great deal on the story we tell ourselves about the event. When students own their stories, they’ll be able to decide whether a week of insults was the uh-oh leading to full-scale bullying, or the oh no! in which they put a stop to the insults. Students will be able to decide if a few weeks of falling behind in assignments meant they needed to buckle down and finish strong, or admit that the story of a particular class ended with dropping.
I go back again and again to the end of Robert Penn Warren’s book-length poem Audubon:
“In this century, and moment,
of mania, / Tell me a story.”
We all need to do that, right? We have a lot of different stories (and, gasp! that triangle doesn’t always work for the telling), but I know what kind of story I need the most right now. It’s the very last line of Audubon:
“Tell me a story of deep delight.”