Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Triangle Structure for Writers, Part 2

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

We’re working on the Triangle of Structure, to understand how even a three-point structure can make the difference between a good book and a great book.

If you missed it, here's part one of The Triangle Structure for Writers.

The Reversal
The Reversal is the second structural element of our Triangle. It‘s called by many names:
  • Midpoint 
  • Moment of Commitment
  • Point of No Return
  • No Turning Back
  • Whiff of Death
  • Central Crisis
  • The Ordeal
  • The ‘Ah-ha’ Moment

Any of these will work but, ultimately, it’s the place where a major shift in the dynamics of the story takes place.  Alexandra Sokoloff states that ‘something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero dies, intensifying his or her commitment.’  It’s the ‘Now, it’s personal’ place in the book.  

Chris Vogler says “Heroes don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed.” The Reversal is where that transformation is crystallized.

And, the master, himself – Joseph Campbell:
Seeker, enter the Inmost Cave and look for that which will restore life to the Home Tribe.  The way grows narrow and dark.  You must go alone on hands and knees and you feel the earth press close around you.  You can hardly breathe.  Suddenly you come out into the deepest chamber and find yourself face-to-face with a towering figure, a menacing Shadow composed of all your doubts and fears and well-armed to defend a treasure.  Here, in this moment, is the chance to win all or die.  No matter what you came for, it’s Death that now stares back at you. Whatever the outcome of the battle, you are about to taste death and it will change you.

This doesn’t all happen exactly at the mid-point – instead, this can be an unfolding from the end of Act I to the middle of Act III – but it also can be set up in a single, breathtaking set-piece scene that makes the audience nod with understanding. Thereadergets it, even if the character is still a little too thick-headed to do so at first.

I think of it as where the protagonist takes the plunge from being reactive to becoming proactive– in other words, the protagonist finally realizes his choices are not actively helping him to achieve his goal, so he tries to learn from his mistakes.  Better choices, ultimately, get her where she truly wants to be.  But the Reversal isn’t just about choices, it’s about how our character reacts to the hand she’s been dealt.  

In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice has been following all the rules to try to find the Senator’s daughter.  She’s a rule follower by nature – she does what she’s told so that she gets ahead – but Lector won’t help her unless she gives him ‘quid pro quo’.  So, against the orders of her immediate superior, she tells Hannibal about her past – the slaughter of the innocents – and what it means to her.  She’s quickly rewarded with the information she needs to rescue Katherine and she also learns a valuable lesson – rules don’t fix everything.  Her quest for the killer is nowhere near over, but she finds the strength within herself to go against that relatively anal personality and think for herself.

In Jaws, we catch our first real glimpse of the monster at the midpoint.  Brody knows that there’s a shark, but the true horror, the “Now, it’s personal” moment, comes when his son is almost a victim. This sets up an entirely new direction for the movie – Brody overcomes his fear of the water long enough to do what’s necessary to deal with the shark.  And Quint realizes ‘we’re gonna need a bigger boat.’  The threat now is real and obvious in a way it wasn’t before.

Jurassic Parkhas the same ‘formula’. We watch the ordinary world, where Grant and Ellie are recruited to vet a dinosaur park.  Then, as the movie continues, we see that rides don’t work, the computer with major bad mojo, the sick triceratops – lots of things going on, but none of them earth-shaking.  But, at the midpoint, that all changes and, for the first time, the true stakes of the story – simply staying alive - are shown in a HUGE set-piece. Talk about the antithesis of a sagging middle!  Here, in a magnificent (and probably horrifically expensive!) series of shots, we are introduced to what the characters will be fighting the rest of the movie – a T-Rex and friends.  Wow!  What a GREAT reversal!  

Up.  What is Carl’s goal?  He wants to get the house to Paradise Falls so that he can fulfill Ellie’s dreams. All of the conflict in getting the house there – the building contractors, Russell, the storm, landing in the wrong place, the bird, etc. – become much less important when the villain, Muntz, ‘invites’ them to dinner in his amazing dirigible.  When Carl realizes the danger he and Russell are in (Reversal), the movie takes a hard right turn towards survival and the need for the house to be in a particular spot fades to nothingness in the face of what they must do to stay alive.

These examples are all large ones, painted with a big brush. How about a smaller one?  In An Officer and a Gentleman, Zack survives what is basically a death-and-rebirth ordeal at the hands of his drill instructor and dramatically changes the way he acts and reacts from that point forward.  He becomes a team player because he finally understands that the ‘old’ way of doing things isn’t going to get him where he wants to be.

“Like a circus tent hanging on its poles, structure is subject to gravity…”  (Vogler, pg. 159)  If you don’t have something MAJOR happening, something intensely personal, your story can lose steam and, ultimately, flop.  Hanging all of the pieces of this crazy puzzle together can be a challenge, but it is so worth it when you get them all in a row.  

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.

Beverly Hills Cop
Inciting Incident:
  • Axel's best friend is murdered
  • Reversal:
  • Axel is almost killed and a BH cop saves him. 
  • Jenny is kidnapped.  “Now, it’s personal”

Romancing the Stone
Inciting Incident:
  • Joan Wilder's sister is kidnapped
  • Jack Colton wrecks his vehicle and his birds are set free
  • Reversal:
  • After a night of dancing and love-making, Joan
  • and Jack begin to work together 

Star Wars – first one from the mid-70’s
This movie has several major characters but their reversal is across the board.
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’s realization that Jabba the Hut has placed a bounty on his head

  • Luke, Leia and Han are in ‘the belly of the whale’, deep in the trash compactor of the Death Star, where they face death by compaction. When they realize they aren’t going to die, there is a shift of thinking – they first laugh in relief, then realize that they are not helpless against the Empire.

Inciting Incident:
  • "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 stops Rose from jumping from the ship's deck

  • Rose assesses her life and realizes that marriage to Cal, no matter what the benefits, would destroy her.  She takes the step that will make her the last person Cal would marry by making love with Jack in the car in the hold.
  • Titanic hits the iceberg.

Now, we're going to create a Reversal for your story.  
This actually is exactly the same formula from the Inciting Incident – because it should ask the same question, just from a different place in the book.  
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 Reversal instead.  


forcing a choice by ______________(character)

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

The Black Moment question is the same also.  But we’ll work on that next month.

Discovering Story Magic
Beginnings, Middles, Ends, Nancy Kress
Plot, Ansen Dibell
The Writer’s Journey, Chris Vogler


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.


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  2. Replies
    1. So glad you read them! I always appreciate your comments.
      Thanks so much!

  3. Thanks, Sally, I needed this, and I have just the right spot for it. ;)

  4. Always great ideas Ms. Sally. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you! I love sharing - I learned from some of the best. :)

  5. This is great. I love the examples, they explain it so well. Thank you.

    1. Good! Glad you're 'getting it'. This is a hard concept - at least, it was for me!