Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 5, 2024

The Triangle of Writing Structure

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer

Story triangle with child hands spelling story.

Most writers have heard of the Hero’s Journey; a basic structure of how stories have been told from the beginning of storytelling. We always start with a protagonist, whether a hero or a heroine, who has some sort of a quest, and has to learn lessons, gain allies, create enemies, and fight a huge battle at the end.

There are dozens of different folks who teach this process, from Joseph Campbell, who did much of the original research on storytelling in the 1950s, to Christopher Vogler, who was instrumental in  Hollywood’s use of it in the 1990s, to Blake Synder, who popularized it for novel writers.

Each of them (and many more) utilize a different number of stops on the journey, from twelve to one-hundred-twenty, all depending on how deep a writer wants to go.

But what I’ve discovered is that even the best of writers can have glazed eyes by the time we try to use all the information these systems entail.

What if we can make the Hero’s Journey easier?

How about three steps? We really can simplify it by reducing the journey to its core elements: the Inciting Incident, the Reversal, and the Black Moment.

Different people call these three steps different things but they all are found in the story in basically the same three places, which break down into points on a triangle.

Triangles are the strongest structural element in buildings, so why not use them to build our stories?

Go look at any old bridge. Or an old screen doors. Or even the legs on some tables and chairs. Many of them use the shape of a triangle because it provides a solid, stable base. Some of those bridges have been standing for thousands of years.

The strength is in the distribution of weight. We do the same in our books. We need a huge hook at the beginning (the Inciting Incident), a strong, heart-wrenching ah-ha moment in the middle (the Reversal), and a satisfying ending (the Black Moment) in the stories to create great ones.

And, even if you don’t use any of the other nine or one-hundred-seventeen stops, if you can make these three powerful and solid, you have the basis of an amazing story.

The Triangle of Writing Structure

So, let’s break them down in a simple and easy way. (There are thousands of articles and blogs on the internet if you want more information.)

The Inciting Incident is also the “exciting!” incident.

It’s the place where the protagonist (in a character-driven story) figures out there is something missing. Most protagonist goals are centered around something – to find the treasure, to protect the family, to get the job, to have the relationship. So first, we have to decide what the protagonist wants badly enough to do the work. The Inciting Incident is where that realization hits. It changes the direction of the entire story and, ultimately, is determined by the journey itself. (The Inciting Incident is usually about 1/8 of the way into the story – in a 100-page story, it falls around page 12.)

The Reversal is usually almost dead center (page 50 in a 100-page book).

Prior to the Reversal, the protagonist is searching for the treasure, but everything is going wrong. At the Reversal, the protagonist realizes that, without an inner change of attitude, the treasure will never be found. It’s a place of deep thinking and immense soul-searching. But once that understanding has been made, the character now has the ability to go forward with new knowledge.

The Black Moment

Finally, the Black Moment is the place where the conflict escalates, the sacrifice is made, the battle is won. It usually falls in the last 1/8th of the story, in between page 80 and 90. It can be short – one scene and over – or long, across a dozen scenes. Regardless, it is where the protagonist takes the new knowledge and applies it to the situation. And the original goal is re-evaluated. Was the “treasure” what the protagonist really wanted? Or was it simply a will-of-the-wisp dream and the real desire now is within grasp?

Some Movie Examples

I’m going to show this in a couple of different movies, one old and one new, with the hope that the reader has seen or at least heard of one of them. I also am willing to help with any movie in the comments.

The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of OZ, which most have at least heard of, Dorothy’s goal is to save Toto. (No, it’s not “to go home” until later in the story.) So, her Inciting Incident is when Toto is going to be “put down” by the neighborhood witch because Toto snapped at her. Dorothy will do anything to save Toto and runs away. But she doesn’t have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to save either Toto or herself.

Dorothy is transported to Oz via tornado and accidently kills a witch.

She’s told that all she has to do is “follow the yellow brick road” because the Wizard will send her home. But that’s not what happens. Even after she makes the long, perilous journey, the Wizard demands that she “pay” for his help by bringing him the Wicked Witch’s broom.

Here, in the Reversal (right in the middle of the story), Dorothy realizes that she can’t depend on someone else for her safety; she’ll have to figure it out on her own. (This particular reversal is not the strongest example but more people know the story.)

After more problems, she kills the Wicked Witch by saving Scarecrow and marches back into the Wizard’s great hall to demand her payment – a much different attitude than the last time she was there. The Wizard offers to take her home in his balloon.

Black Moment? Toto jumps out of the basket and chases a cat. This leaves Dorothy in a quandary. She’s done what she had to, she’s learned all her lessons, and she still may not get home.

But has she indeed learned everything she’s supposed to? Which will she choose? To stay in Oz with Toto or to go home without him?

Since her first and most important goal was to save Toto, and she now (because of new understanding of herself and her role in life from the Reversal) has the courage to take charge of her own life, she stays with Toto and is rewarded by the knowledge within to go home.

Do you see how the three points of the triangle all fit together perfectly? Each is directly and intimately connected to the other. Without one, the other two collapse.

Dune, Part 2

The “new” movie is based on an old book and is a part 2 of a series, but it also works well in the triangle.

Paul starts the second movie with revenge in his heart. His Inciting Incident is a series of things – Paul’s father is murdered in the first movie, he and his mother have to escape, leaving everything they had behind.

The Fremen rescue them but Paul has to fight Jamis to prove himself, and he has to admit that he is not the Lisan al-Gaib and ask for training to survive in the desert. Every one of these things could be called the Inciting Incident, so you can pick the one you want, but they all are wrapped around his goal of avenging his father.

His Reversal comes in about the middle when he is basically forced to travel to the South deserts, even though he knows it’s not only dangerous for him but for the woman he loves and his mother. He’s transformed by the Water of Life and then has to make earth-shattering and terrifying decisions that will change his entire world.

The Black Moment is when he knows, even as he’s telling Chani that he’ll “love her as long as he breathes,” that he’ll betray her by marrying the Emperor’s daughter.

This one also hangs together beautifully – Paul never wavers from his desire to avenge his father and every decision, even when he has access to the memories of all the Reverend Mothers of the past, is directed towards killing the perpetrators of the murders and also keeping his family alive.

Final Thought

This is VERY simplified. Of course, there are all of those steps enumerated in the Hero’s Journey that I’ve left out but, at the point of developing or editing the book, they aren’t as important as these three.

I hope you consider the Triangle when you write your next book. Having that journey mapped out, at any level, can help immensely!

Do you have any questions or observations? Want or need any more clarification? Please weigh in and we’ll chat about it more in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Sally

Sarah Sally Hamer

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com and hosts symposiums at www.mindpotential.org. Find her at info@mindpotential.org.

Photo credits:
  • Top photo built in Canva by Writers in the Storm
  • All others from Sarah Sally Hamer

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11 comments on “The Triangle of Writing Structure”

  1. I love this "simplified" version of story structure, Sally! I use these points in the story to help me plot but your triangle connects the dots in a clear way. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Lynette, I'm glad it helps clarify for you. It certainly does for me! I got overwhelmed with all the steps when I first learned HJ and am so glad to make it so simple I can understand it. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Sally,

    Thank you for simplifying story structure for me. I, for one, have been overwhelmed with reviewing all the possibilities, especially lately. I am a through and through researcher, which can be very detrimental for writing the simple elements of life ... or of story.

    This post has been a good reminder that 'simple' has a place in my work. And although I shall never be cured of falling into an occasional rabbit hole of research, I hope to minimize the habit.

    Your advice is always so solid. Thank you.

    Jennifer

    1. Thank you, Jennifer!

      Nothing wrong with rabbit holes, as long as you remember which way is up! I fall into them also, so having a solid structure to remind me of the way home helps me immensely.

      Thanks for the post!

  3. A perfect simplification of the Hero's Journey. The "Triangle" diagram pinpoints where the writer needs to be at all times. You make things clear for writers at each stage of the process.

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