Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Triangle of Structure Part 3

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Part Three - the Black Moment
The Black Moment is the third and final structural element of our Triangle. It‘s also called the crisis or the emotional climax. I like to call it the 'all is lost' moment, since it's where the protagonist has the absolutely toughest decision in the world to make. How will he decide between what he wants and what's right? Will she hold onto her original goal if it causes her to lose what she now wants? This last decision has to hurt and has to matter. Be mean! Even if you don't want to torture your character!

I love The Prince of Persia 's black moment—Dastan has to watch Tamina, his new-found love, sacrifice herself by falling to her death because he can't both save her and stop his evil uncle. His reward is that, by saving the world, he also reverses the spell and is able to meet her again, this time as a reborn, and more mature, man.  

Another great Black Moment is in The Ugly Truth. Mike has fallen in love with Abby while helping her to ‘catch’ and seduce Colin. Abby's greatest wish is to marry Colin but she's had to recreate herself into someone she doesn't like to do so. The Black Moment comes when Abby realizes that she has to choose between her dream of Colin and the reality of Mike. Not an earth-shattering 'all is lost' moment, but certainly satisfactory for the story it's in. And a lovely HEA moment.

One more: George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Lifehas to suffer through all the bad things that would have happened if he hadn't existed. It gets worse and worse, until he finally breaks. Even knowing that he'll go to jail for bank fraud, he begs for his life back and finds that, because he has done the right things all his life, he has friends and family who will make sure that his monetary loss is paid in full. This is a black moment that goes on for much of the last part of the second act, all the way through the middle of the third one.   

In fact, just as with the other two pivot points, the Black Moment doesn't have to be one major scene, it can evolve over several scenes as necessary for the telling of the story. 

So, how do you go about creating that great, heart-wrenching moment? Anna Campbell gives the following suggestions, gleaned from a Donald Maas workshop:
  1. Work out the one thing your character would never do, then make him/her do it.
  2. Work out the one thing your character would never sacrifice, then make him/her sacrifice it.
  3. Work out your character's greatest fear, then make him/her face it. 

Does it sound like this should be a major turning point in your character's world? I certainly think so. In fact, without a life-changing emotional climax, the story may fall flat as a flitter. This scene, or series of scenes, needs to be both powerful and poignant. It is, after all, what the audience has been waiting for. Don't disappoint them! 

Things NOT to use as Black Moments
1. Really obvious stuff
This is NOT where you introduce a new character or a different conflict. In fact, the Black Moment should interweave perfectly with the Inciting Incident and the Reversal. But if the reader has seen the ending coming from the get-go, chances are it will not be satisfying. Did you know that Thelma and Louise were going over the cliff? It satisfied the audience because it was the logical ending and, really, the justifiable retribution for their 'bad' deeds. But they didn't have conversation after conversation about how death was the only way out—it came as enough of a surprise to make the audience gasp and then nod. It made sense.

Another example: The Sixth Sense tweaked my writer's mind over and over as I watched it, because I knew it needed some transitional scenes that were left out. A scene between Malcolm and the mother, for instance, where they discussed Cole's treatment. But the movie caught me up in the truly distressing trauma and I didn't hang on to the thought. Then, the end came in such a way that it knocked my socks off. It made perfect sense at the same time that I had no idea it was going to happen.

One more: The Others is a horror/suspense starring Nicole Kidman as a woman whose husband is 'off to the war'. Her two children are allergic to sunlight and they and the servants rattle around in a huge house filled with ghosts and strange happenings where no one ever comes and no one ever leaves. I'm not much for this type of movie, but I went with a friend and, by the end, I was on the edge of my seat. If my friend hadn't cottoned on to what was happening and blurted out the secret, I probably wouldn't have been able to stay to finish it - it was that horrific. But, again, the ending was entirely logical, based on the set-up. I've watched it many times since and marveled at how deftly it was done.
2. Misunderstandings
If the conflict in the story could be solved by the protagonist having an honest conversation over tea with the main antagonist, chances are you'll lose your audience. Make sure that the conflict between the two characters is tight, from beginning to end. 
InThe Silence of the Lambs, Clarice descends into the labyrinth of the basement—a natural outreach of the set-up—to rescue the Senator's daughter. Her mentor, Hannibal Lector, has deserted her. The man who should have been her protector and mentor, her FBI handler, has made a fatally wrong choice and gone to the wrong house. The monster awaits her in the darkness and Clarice is on her own, alone and, in some ways, a lamb ready to be sacrificed. There is no misunderstanding that could be quickly and easily cleared up. This is a life or death struggle and we don't know until the very end how it will turn out.

The Black Moment is, ultimately, the crowning piece of the Triangle. It tells the endof the Inciting Incident's beginning and the Reversal's middle. Each one of the elements blends with and enhances the other two, until they all hold up their side with all the support the story needs. In fact, if one side is weaker than the other two, the triangle becomes unstable and may even fall.

So, let's look at the examples we've studied to see how the structure fits together.

Inciting Incident: A shark is killed and, when the mayor proclaims that this is Jaws, Brody and Hooper do an autopsy. There are no human remains in its stomach. The story shifts here when Brody can no longer allow the mayor to put people into danger. 

Reversal: Now, it's personal—the shark is seen as a true threat and Brody gets on that small boat to go after it, even though he is terrified of the water. 

Black Moment: Brody watches Quint die and, holding on for dear life to the mast of the sinking boat, uses a tool he understands, a rifle, to blow up the pressurized tank and, finally, kill the shark.

All three of these plot points have to do with Brody's state of mind. At first, he doesn't buck the system—the mayor—even when he knows that people are in danger. Instead, he allows someone else to push him around, rather than to do what needs to be done. Then, when his son is put into danger, Brody buckles on his courage and does the right thing, culminating with Brody taking charge - and killing the shark. All parts of his character arc in this character-driven action/adventure story, but the internal goals of the character also drive the action. All three elements fit together and, even though we may not be aware of it at the beginning, it is inevitable that Brody MUST be the one who fires the last shot. 

Inciting Incident: Carl strikes the man at the mail box and will be taken from his house and sent to a nursing home.

Reversal: After Carl and Russell get to Paradise Falls, they find Muntz, Carl's childhood hero, is really a mean man who intends to kill them.

Black Moment: 1) Carl has to choose whether to rescue Russell or save Ellie's house. 2)  The battle on the dirigible. 

The first Black Moment in this one actually comes earlier than most—we know that Ellie and her dream of Paradise Falls are Carl's driving force so, when he makes that decision, the rest of the movie is whether or not he can rescue Russell from Muntz. But it still all hangs together, since Carl's sacrifice is motivated by the right reasons. 

An Officer and a Gentleman
Inciting Incident: Zach is caught by the Drill Instructor charging the other cadets for shining their shoes. 
Reversal: Zach is confronted by the DI and has to fight to stay in the program.
Black Moment: Zach gives up his chance to graduate first in his class to help another cadet finish the obstacle course, thereby proving he could truly be both an officer and a gentleman.

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.”

Black Moment: Axel has to let the other cops help him to bring down the bad guys. His character arc is that, as a loner, it’s hard to allow others to help him in his quest to find justice.

Romancing the Stone
Inciting Incident: Joan Wilder's sister is kidnapped and Jack Colton's vehicle is wrecked, setting his birds free.

Reversal: After a night of dancing and love-making, Joan and Jack begin to work together. 

Black Moment: Jack swims after the crocodile, leaving Joan alone to face her future as she wonders if she'll ever see him again.

So. Hopefully my own exercise in trying to figure this all out has been beneficial for you and your stories and that you can build on the simple structure a triangle provides.

The Triangle of Structure for Writers—The Black Moment - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

How the black moment feeds into the triangle of 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.

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


  1. Love your insight to the craft!

  2. These series of posts had been so helpful. Thank you, Sally. You are a great instructor.

    1. Thanks, Ingmar! I love the intricacies of plot and how it all fits together.
      Appreciate the comment!

  3. Late to the party again, but this is very helpful and interesting. Good job, thank you, Sarah. ;)