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Posted on Apr 14, 2021

The Fichtean Curve: A Story in Crisis

The Fichtean Curve — despite sounding rather scholarly — is a narrative structure beloved by writers of mystery and the pacy pulp fiction found in 60s magazines. Fleshed out in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, it proposes storytelling by way of episodic events, which gradually build up to a grand, climactic crisis.

To understand the structure in a practical sense (and how it might be used by writers today) let’s delve into it some more. We’ll be mapping the structure onto John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to explore its components in detail.

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What is the Fichtean curve?

The Fichtean curve is split into three parts:

  1. Rising Action.
  2. Climax. 
  3. Falling Action

Instead of a lengthy setup that thoroughly establishes our protagonist and the world of the story, it encourages the writer to enter the rising action as soon as possible — getting the show on the road posthaste. The first two-thirds of the story will encompass this rising action — a series of increasingly troubling crises. Any necessary context and character development should be interwoven with this action as the plot progresses.

The story will reach a climax in a final, larger crisis: an event that could be either catastrophic or redeeming for the protagonist. Either way, it drastically changes the course of the story and triggers a final period of falling action. Here, earlier plot points are tied up, and the story will be resolved in some way. 

It's one thing after another

For many writers, the Fichtean curve will feel like a natural extension of how they intuitively tell stories — as a series of escalating mishaps or triumphs. It’s a simple formula that doesn’t demand over-the-top theatrics to keep its pace, rather, smaller episodes sustain a frisson of drama throughout. It works well for linear and non-linear plots too, giving you maximum flexibility if you are just starting out on planning your novel!

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The Fichtean Curve in action: A Confederacy of Dunces

This mid-century cult classic is a comedy of errors that follows the misadventures of Ignatius J Reilly, a foolish and delusional misanthrope who lives in 1960s New Orleans, unemployed and a benefactor of his hapless mother. Needless to say, spoilers ahead!

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Nick Offerman in the Huntington Theatre Company's 2015 production of A Confederacy of Dunces. (T Charles Erickson Photography)

Part #1: Rising action

Stories employing the Fichtean Curve typically hit the ground running — the narrative starts in the middle of a crisis, and usually contains two or more crises in this period of ‘rising action’. Every crisis functions as a plot point where the character has some kind of learning experience; so this period is also where important character development, context, and backstory unfolds.

In a detective novel, these crises might consist of leads and dead-ends. In a romance, this could be a series of misfiring dates, followed by the travails of new-couplehood. In a fantasy novel, an apprentice wizard might be learning spells and getting into trouble time and again as his skills grow. 

CRISIS 1: Driving home after a heavy drinking session, Ignatius’s mother crashes her car. Confronted with a $1,000 fine (a small fortune at the time), Ignatius must get a job — the thing that sets our story off.

📚   The first job Ignatius lands is as an office clerk at Levy Pants. Disdainful of his new employers and believing the work is beneath him, he causes trouble writing fraudulent and insulting letters to clients, throwing away files, and starting a riot amongst the factory workers.

CRISIS 2: Ignatius’s ongoing belligerence and rudeness results in him being fired.

📚   Wandering through New Orleans, Ignatius happens upon Paradise Vendors, a hotdog stall. He is employed here, but once again causes mischief by eating copious amounts of stock and receiving a complaint from the health board.

CRISIS 3: Ignatius retains his job, but is punished by being made to work across town and debase himself by wearing a pirate costume. 

📚 Here, Ignatius runs into Dorian Greene, a gay denizen of the French Quarter. After some discussion, Ignatius decides he wants to start a political party, for which Dorian agrees to host a launch event.

hot dog stand
via Unsplash

CRISIS 4: Ignatius turns up to Dorian’s event to discover that it is, in fact, a debauched party rather than a political rally.


Subplot

The protagonist's backstory and other crucial character development are interwoven into this period of rising action. Moments of high drama function doubly as action points and revelatory moments. Subplots/B character storylines can also run parallel to these crises.

📚   At University, Ignatius had a girlfriend called Myrna Minkoff. He still frequently exchanges letters with her in the hope of rekindling a romance. We learn about his younger days and discover that he’s always been somewhat of an outcast. Amidst the crises of the story, Ignatius often retreats to his bedroom and fills his diary. A prolific writer, he hopes (perhaps delusionally) to pen the next American masterpiece.


Part #2: Climax

The climax of the curve arrives towards the end and can be considered the dramatic peak of the story. The protagonist, after overcoming the previous crises, has been met with the ultimate impasse — a conflict that cannot be overcome as easily as previous roadblocks. Whether the character learns from their mistakes (or not) determines the outcome of the story. 

CLIMAX: Ignatius attempts to give a speech at the party but is booed offstage. This is the ultimate humiliation, at a moment when he believed that he was going to be celebrated.

📚   Faced with this crisis, he has a choice: a) deal with it, move on and grow, or b) relapse back into old behavior. Once again, Ignatius chooses the low road. Angry and deflated, he heads downtown to drown his sorrows at the bar. Here, a dog mistakes his pirate earring for a jumping hoop and attacks and badly injures him (talk about knocking a man whilst he’s down!).

Part #3: Falling action

This is where the story sees its resolution. Usually, unresolved plot strands are tied up, and the narrative arc of the protagonist is completed. The protagonist’s journey is likely to have been radically altered by this final, climactic event, and may also find their worldview radically changed as well. The falling action is likely to be where the moral arc of the story is made most evident.

📚   Ignatius is in the hospital recovering. Having almost reached the top of the proverbial mountain, he slips and hits every rock on the way back down and gets some retribution for his misadventures. Mr. Levy confronts Ignatius about his fraudulent letters in the wake of discovering a $500,000 lawsuit has been filed against him by a client — but another colleague takes the flack. He’s also punished by his mother for being a drain on her, as she calls a local psychiatric ward.

RESOLUTION: Suspicious that his mother has called for him to be taken away to a psychiatric hospital, Ignatius escapes to New York with Myrna Minkoff. Nominally he gets what he wants with Myrna, but because he hasn't changed — and he is still who he is — his unhappiness can be seen as a comeuppance of sorts. 

Rather than bringing about a resolving radical change in thinking or beliefs, the climax in A Confederacy of Dunces simply gives Ignatius the impetus to escape New Orleans for good… having learned nothing.

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When should you use The Fichtean Curve?

As always, there is no 'best' or 'correct' structural method — just one that better suits a writer and the story they're telling. With that in mind, here are a few situations in which an author might want to use the Fichtean Curve. 

When writing in a literary style

This approach is good for those writing literary fiction. Though it might sound counterintuitive, stories with less emphasis on plot can make use of ‘episodes’ as a way to develop their characters and create a satisfying story. For this reason, the Fichtean curve works well for those writing pieces of fiction that are less plot-driven. This is because a ‘crisis’ is a flexible structural format — it could be as small as a tense conversation, or as big as death, and can happen in the fictive past or present, becoming a self-contained episode.

For telling character-driven stories 

Crises in rising action are designed to put a character through their paces. They present an opportunity for a character to make a decision and experience its consequences. To go back to our example, each new workplace Ignatius enters figures dually as a ‘crisis’ (or episode) and a 'test of personality'. Ignatius fails these tests at every level— even as the stakes become higher and higher. Readers are provided with a three-dimensional portrait of his malevolent and selfish nature precisely because these traits are teased out through his reactions to particular events.

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The narrative is driven by the resistance that occurs at each of these hurdles and has the added benefit of establishing a consistent pace and creating an element of suspense whilst also driving a plot forward.


So there we have it — everything you need to know about the Fichtean Curve! If you’ve been wooed by this story structure’s simple formula, why don’t you try and put it to practice with your own story?