Have you ever noticed that one area of plot tends to get neglected?
If you browse writing blogs on a regular basis, you’re probably familiar with multiple strategies for structuring a plot, such as the Three Act, Snowflake, Save the Cat, or Hero’s Journey templates. But advice on structuring individual scenes? That’s rare.
Knowing how to plot an entire novel is useful, but if you struggle to craft the scenes and chapters within it, you won’t make much progress. The best tool for those smaller components is the Triangle Scene Method.
I first learned the technique during high school, but when I recently taught it to one of my writing students, I realized that few resources on the topic are available online. The concept gets mentioned briefly, if at all.
This article is my attempt to fill that void and instruct you in the art of the triangle.
The Triangle Scene Method
John Truby’s classic work for screenwriters, The Anatomy of Story, introduced me to the Triangle Scene Method: “Think of a scene as an upside-down triangle. The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.”
As that description implies, an effective triangular scene consists of three parts.
1. The Beginning of the Scene Should Raise a Pertinent Narrative Question
As I explain in greater depth in my minicourse, How to Keep Readers Turning Pages, suspenseful storytelling is based on questions. Will Luke escape the wampa? Will Frank propose to Emma? Will Lightning McQueen win the race? These uncertainties drive stories forward.
When the narrative question flows from the POV character’s desire, you’ll engage readers. He wants something, and as he pursues it, the audience wonders whether he’ll succeed.
Most importantly, the challenge should arise quickly. As Truby warns, “Start[ing] the scene early and build[ing] slowly toward the main conflict doesn’t make the scene realistic; it makes it dull.” A scene must promptly set up the character’s objective to avoid wasting readers’ time.
2. The Middle of the Scene Should Feature Failed Attempts to Achieve the Goal
A character who scores on the first shot is boring. His efforts should involve three main steps: 1) he develops a plan, 2) he runs into obstacles, and 3) after Plan A flops, he brainstorms a Plan B, C, and so on.
Strong storytelling allows the character to miss the target (oftentimes repeatedly), requiring him to display ingenuity, intelligence, persistence, or skill. In so doing, he discards potential answers to the narrative question. Will Luke free himself from the wampa’s cave? He can’t unfreeze his legs. Casual use of the Force doesn’t budge his lightsaber, and when he does manage to retrieve it, he catches the wampa’s attention. (You can view the famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back here if you’ve forgotten it!)
As the character tests out solutions to his problem and discovers which ones are faulty, his options continue to narrow into the triangle’s point.
3. The Scene Should End with an Answer to the Narrative Question
Truby defines the crux of a scene in a screenplay as a word or line, but for novels, I would argue that an action, decision, or event can suffice as well. Whatever form the moment takes, the scene’s narrative question must be resolved either positively or negatively. When done right, as Truby puts it, “the combination of the endpoint of the desire with the key word or line creates a knockout punch that also kicks the audience to the next scene.”
After all, the idea is that once you reach the triangle’s point, the scene should end. If necessary, you can wrap up with a couple sentences, but save the character’s reflections until the next chapter. As the old saying goes, you should “enter a scene late and leave it early.” Encourage readers to flip the page to find out how the results affect the character.
Ideally, the outcome should be somewhat surprising. Predictable answers to narrative questions lead to bland stories. Unexpected ones give readers an impetus to read on.
As I’ve demonstrated, the theory behind the Triangle Scene Method is simple. But implementing it is more complicated, so I’ll examine two different books to show it in practice.
Example #1: Chapter 16 of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games
To provide a brief rundown of the context, Katniss is in the Arena and has just allied with Rue. After a short reaction paragraph about the skirmishes in the previous chapter, Katniss reveals that she needs to destroy the Career Tributes’ supplies if she and Rue are to survive.
The triangle has begun, and the rest of the chapter narrows her options. She comes up with a scheme, then separates from Rue to locate the Cornucopia. After evaluating the layout, she realizes her scheme won’t work and considers striking the supplies with a flaming arrow instead. When she realizes the ground is mined, however, she switches tactics one last time: trigger an explosion to obliterate the supplies.
Katniss aims an arrow at a bag of apples, and the chapter as well as the triangle culminates with her thoughts as she releases it: “For a moment, everything seems frozen in time. Then the apples spill to the ground and I’m blown backward into the air.”
The narrative question has been answered. Katniss hits her mark, and readers eagerly turn to the next chapter to see how the victory impacts her. Potent chapters end as close to that pivotal moment as possible—not sooner, not later.
Example #2: Chapter 34 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
The Triangle Scene Method is applicable to slower paced stories too. Though Austen’s work doesn’t meet modern standards for suspense, chapter thirty-four is rife with tension.
Elizabeth is staying with one of her friends while she tries to deal with the obnoxious Mr. Darcy. The chapter spends a couple paragraphs on her horror over the recent revelation that Darcy split up her sister and Mr. Bingley. But Darcy soon ushers in the scene’s narrative question: How will Elizabeth respond when he springs a proposal on her?
After one of the worst proposals you’ll probably encounter in fiction, Elizabeth curtly rejects him. This may seem to be the triangle’s point at first, but Darcy refuses to accept her no, which sparks another question: Why won’t she marry him? As the conversation ricochets between them, Elizabeth’s flawed reasoning disintegrates until the truth finally emerges: “I had not known you but a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
After her zinging, humiliating retort, the scene goes on for several paragraphs since genre conventions back then didn’t value suspense as much as today. But I suspect that a modern editor (or Truby, at any rate) would recommend cutting it much closer to Elizabeth’s declaration. Nonetheless, the chapter still neatly follows the Triangle Scene Method.
Shaping Your Own Scenes into Triangles
In the interest of time, I’ll avoid analyzing too many other books and movies. But if you want to study more examples, check out the scene from The Avengers where Natasha tries to determine Loki’s plans, the courtroom scene from Hidden Figures where Mary Jackson petitions for the right to attend classes at the local high school, and the dinner scene from La La Land where Seb and Mia argue about whether he should commit to his current band (language warning).
The Triangle Scene Method is one of the most powerful devices at your disposal for writing chapters. From page one, the scene grabs readers with an important narrative question that the POV character fixates on and explores how to answer. After an assortment of setbacks, the conclusion satisfies—but also amazes—readers, drawing them into the next chapter.
What would your story look like if every chapter contained these three values: suspense, focus, and surprise?
When you correctly execute the Triangle Scene Method, you too can wow readers.
Josiah DeGraaf is the editor-in-chief of Story Embers and the fiction content manager of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching writers at Ink Slinger Academy or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.