I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.