Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Triangle of Structure for Writers

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Ah, structure. A word that strikes fear in many a pantster’s heart. 

What IS structure, exactly? 

Maybe it would be better to talk about what structure is not.

  • Structure is not a disorganized mess.
  • Structure is not writing thousands of words before figuring out the story.
  • Structure is not tons of unused back story.
  • Structure is not having sagging middles that go nowhere.

Structure is not having no idea where you’re going.

The pantsters in the room are holding their hearts and gasping for breath. 
But even pantsters have structure, whether they believe or admit it. 
Structure is what holds the story together. And, amazingly enough, stories are told very much the same way, no matter what type of story it is. 

Joseph Campbell, a ‘mythologist’, has studied comparative mythology and religion all over the word. His books include The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Power of Mythand The Hero’s Journey.He says that every culture, every religion, every continent, every age - everybody - tells stories in basically the same way – a hero with a goal is threatened by someone or something that gets in the way. The hero learns a lesson and, because of that, is able to defeat the ‘bad guy’. I’m paraphrasing immensely here, but Campbell’s lifelong work proved his theory time and time again.

So, what exactly is this plot structure? How does it work? How can we make ours better so that our stories are better?

First we have to understand it.

It's long been known that the strongest geometric shape is the triangle. The Egyptians, the Romans and the cathedral builders of the Renaissance all used the triangle in their architecture because of its ability to "bear strong loads without deformation.” In other words, triangles are good things to build with. 

That goes for plot structure too. If you can get the three main plot points strong enough, interwoven enough and clear enough, your triangle will hold your story together, just as a truss bridge made from triangles, will hold until the material rots - sometimes for hundreds and thousands of years.

So, the three plot points are: the Inciting Incident, the Reversal, and the Black Moment. Different people call them different things – which I’ll explain – but these three points are the structure that holds your story together.

The Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident, or II, is the first and the most amazing corner of the triangle. Without it, nothing more really can happen. Other names for the II are The Call to Adventure, hook, or even The ExcitingIncident. But they all mean about the same thing - it's where a change happens to start the story on its way. 

Jack Bickham, author of Scene and Sequel, said, “Significant change that threatens a character's self-concept is where the story begins."

Stated more simply, we start with a character who will very quickly have change thrust upon him, whether he wants it or not. 

Remember, a story begins with a character who has a goal - to winsomething, to escapesomething, to findsomething, to make something happen. This goal is extremely important to our character, something he will be willing to fight for, even if he’s reluctant at first.

So, the story starts with our character in a situation where her goal is currently unobtainable for some reason. Maybe she doesn't have enough information or the emotional maturity or even the guts to get what she wants. She's stuck, so to speak, in a stew of her own making. 

Then, something comes along to jump start the story. And that something, that SPECIAL something, is the true beginning of the adventure.   

Every individual story and every type of story can have a different type of II. It's not set in concrete that a Western has to have a stranger ride into town, for instance. Or a romance has to have the 'cute meet' between the hero and heroine. But these Inciting Incidents, based on a particular genre, are pretty much tried and true. And there's certainly nothing wrong with them, especially if an author can find a way to make their version new and different. 

Think Cowboys and Aliens. It starts out as a Western, with a stranger showing up in town, but then the story takes a pretty hard right turn into a sci-fi. Fun to watch, but a little weird. And pretty successful, for what it was.

Romances can change up too. In Sleepless in Seattle, the hero and heroine don't actually meet until the last scene of the movie. It doesn't fit any true ‘set’ of romantic guidelines, but works very well. Each one of the characters - Meg Ryan's Annie and Tom Hanks' Sam - has their own II.

Annie hears 'the voice' on the radio. It draws her from the dull and mundane life she's created with Walter and causes her to want to findsomething different. She doesn't know what she wants at first - there isn't a clear I'm-not-happy-I-want-a-different-life moment. What does happen is that she discovers that, even though she thought she loved Walter, he truly wasn't what she wanted in her life. 

Sam's II is completely different. We see him as a successful architect who has lost a much beloved spouse. His son, who recognizes Sam's pain and loneliness, calls a radio show and, at least to Sam's mind, exposes his private business to an entire world of strangers. So, in separate ways, they each work towards finding a solution. Sam finally allows himself to start living again and Annie searches her heart and realizes that, even if Sam isn't the 'right' one, Walter isn't either. 

Then, when they finally do meet, they have the opportunity to see if they can create a lasting relationship. Did you realize that their love story actually starts ONLY in that last scene? They seem perfect for each other, but they hardly share a word throughout the entire movie. A well-written script and two likable stars made the movie work. 

And, it all hangs together because the Inciting Incident, Reversal and Black Moment all are interconnected. More on this later.

So, let's look at this from a little different way. The II is not just an isolated incident that drops in from nowhere. It BELONGS in the story. In fact, without it, the story shouldn't work. Ask yourself, if this scene isn't in the book, would my character still step onto that yellow brick road? Would Dorothy have taken that obstacle-strewn trip all the way to the Emerald City, if the Wicked Witch hadn't demanded those ruby slippers? Would Scarlett have braved the horrors of a great war if she hadn't wanted Ashley? And Tara? 

What was Scarlett's II? It depends on who you ask, but I think it was a combination of several things - finding out that Ashley was to marry Melanie, throwing herself at Ashley and being rejected and then embarrassing herself in front of Rhett Butler. Gone with the Windis a complicated book with several different subplots, so having more than one II, even for a single character, is not too much, as long as all of the Inciting Incidents evolve from a single goal.    

As I researched this blog, I was not too surprised to find that the II means different things to different people. For some reason, it can be a little difficult to pin down. Some people think that if an II happens too soon in the story, it should instead be called a hook and there should be a different and more complex II farther in. Or, if the II comes too late, it's really the Crossing of the Threshold - a completely different point.

In my opinion, an II doesn't have to be that complicated. I think that some stories allow for multiple reasons for a character to make that giant leap into the unknown. After all, this is all about the story and whatever fits for a particular author and set of characters works as it should. 

Practical Applications:
So, let's find some really clear examples of Inciting Incidents. I'll try to use movies and books that are generally well known. (I would love to use pictures of the movie posters and characters for this, since it helps to remember the movie but they don’t belong to me, so I really can’t. If you need to look them up, please do so. I try to find movies that are popular enough that most people have seen them but that doesn’t always happen. If you have a movie you’d like to suggest, please put it into the comments below and we can discuss it.)

Beverly Hills Cop
  • Axel's best friend is murdered
Romancing the Stone
  • Joan Wilder's sister is kidnapped
  • Jack Colton wrecks his vehicle and his birds (money) are set free
Star Wars
This movie has several major characters and almost all of them have their own personal inciting incident. 
  • Leia is abducted by evil Darth Vader. She sends a message to the one person she thinks can help her, Obi Wan Kenobi.
  • Old Ben Kenobi receives Princess Leia’s desperate holographic message and asks Luke to join in the quest.
  • Luke Skywalker receives several Calls to Adventure: the message from Leia, Ben's request and, finally, the murder of his aunt and uncle.
  • Han Solo realizes that Jabba the Hut has placed a bounty on his head.
  • "Old Rose" sees her nude picture where she's wearing the Heart of the Ocean diamond necklace.
  • "Young Rose" is saved from committing suicide.
  • Jack saves Rose from jumping from the ship's deck.

Now, we're going to create an Inciting Incident for your story. 

The 'formula' below is really pretty simple. But this is basically going to take us backwards from how a story is normally set up. Since we usually work with characters, we often start with a character's goal, motivation and conflict. But this time, we'll start from the Inciting Incident instead. 


forcing a choice by ______________(character)

who will have to face _______________(their flaw and their fear).

Wow! It was really hard for me to figure this out. I fought with it at several levels, especially since it seemed that the Inciting Incident for my current wip happened before the story started. But then I realized that that particular event actually was back story and I had to allow the reader to discover it as part of the evolution of my protagonist. The inciting incident, the first piece of the puzzle, happens early on, but it's in the actual story. 

How about you? What happens in your story that starts that ball rolling? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Triangle of structure for writers - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Whether we write as plotters or pantsers, we all have structure - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Don't miss the other pasts in this series:

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. 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 twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Sally, this is excellent information. I analyzed my WIP as I read through your instruction. I appreciate when writers help me see things just a little differently (or a lot) than I did before. Thank you!

    1. Karen, I'm so glad it helped! Sometimes we need to take a step back and look at what we're doing, to make sure we're hitting all the right points.
      Good for you!

  2. Sally, keep contributing here - I have enjoyed all your posts. Especially this one. You've made me take a fresh look at my II and my backstory/prologue dilemma. Thanks.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Jay, excellent!!! I love writing for Edie and am so glad you're finding something useful!
      Appreciate the post.

  3. Outstanding, Sally! Your post offers insight and instruction for all level of writers.

  4. When I saw the title, I guessed you were the author. Good stuff! Thanks for sharing.