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Six-Stage Structure

Plot and Structure: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure since attending his all-day session at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August 2016. I did write a summary post (Identity, Essence, and God), but I didn’t cover the detail of his approach to writing novels and screenplays.

I couldn’t. Because it can’t be boiled down to a 600-word blog post. But over the last year I have come across some free and paid resources where Michael Hauge explains his approach to plot. So I’m going to share those instead of trying to cover everything myself.

Michael Hauge is best known as a screenwriting consultant, and his books do tend to focus on screenplays. But (as he argues), the essential elements of fiction are the same, whether the medium is novel or film or TV. And many writers would like to see their novels adapted into a film—it seems to me that we give ourselves the best chance of making that possible if we start by writing a novel that is structured like a film.

Yes, structure is the key.

A lot of writing instructors focus entirely on plot or structure. It’s not that they ignore character. It’s more that they place structure first. Plot then falls out of that, then character. But if you’ve tried to write a book like that, you’ve probably found it more difficult than it sounds. I think the reason is that it’s easy to explain structure: it’s a formula (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s engineering, and there is a right way to build a story.

Character is harder. Everyone is unique, and our characters also have to be unique. But trying to develop unique characters can’t be reduced to a formula. And that’s where Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Structure can help. (Click here to download a copy.)

Hauge’s methodology complements the work of many other leading writing teachers, e.g.

Here are a few key lessons from Michael Hauge:

  • Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.
  • The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader (or viewer) and gets them to care.
  • You can manipulate conflict using techniques such as a ticking close, or superior knowledge.
  • All stories are about a character who wants something, but something stands in their way. This must be a visible goal.
  • All characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome, and the best way to reveal the wound is through dialogue i.e. show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid multiple-hero stories.

For more information:

Film Courage Interview

Film Courage interviewed Michael in January 2017, and the 90-minute recording is available on YouTube. It’s their most-viewed interview of 2017, and I can see why.

Udemy Course

The interview references some work Michael Hauge did with Chris Vogler, integrating Hauge’s Story Structure with Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. This is available via Udemy. The full course includes over six hours of video. The full price is $175, but Udemy hold regular sales (I got it for $10). I suggest signing up for Udemy’s newsletter so you get notified when they hold a sale.

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Michael Hauge has several books. I’ve read Writing Screenplays That Sell, which I recommend. Hauge goes into a lot of detail about character development, theme, and structure, then moves into how to write and format a screenplay. This section is of less use to novelists but is still worth reading for the occasional relevant nugget. But the book is worth the price for the information in the first section.

You can read the introduction below:

Plot: The LOCK Elements

Last week we looked at the GMC method of plotting and characterisation. This week we are looking at another acronym, LOCK, used by James Scott Bell to describe what he sees as the four key elements of a strong plot:

Lead – Objective – Confrontation – Knockout

Lead

A novel needs a lead character that readers can bond with:

  • We must be able to identify with the lead character, to relate to them on a human level.
  • We must have some sympathy for the Lead’s challenges, by putting the Lead through jeopardy or hardship, making them the underdog or making them vulnerable.
  • The Lead must be likeable. I’ve read too many books with an unlikeable hero or heroine. This is especially annoying in a romance, where an unlikable hero raises questions about the intelligence and discernment of the heroine (or vice versa).
  • There must be some inner conflict, an emotional struggle that catches our attention. Most of us avoid conflict in our personal lives, so there is a tendency to want to avoid writing about it. But:
We must not confuse conflict that can be ruinous in life with conflict that is the essence of fiction. Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their lives. (Sol Stein)

The reader needs to immediately know who the Lead character is, to enable us to build a relationship and develop empathy to their situation:

Ideally, the protagonist should play an important role in the first scene to avoid the reader mistaking another character for the protagonist. One of the marks of amateur novel-writing is a lack of early clarity as to whose story we, as readers, should be following. (Sol Stein)

This is one reason why prologues set in the past don’t always work: the reader is investing themselves in a character, only to find that character has no place in the main plot.

We also need to see what internal and external conflict the Lead is facing as quickly as possible:

One major problem with beginner’s manuscripts is that the protagonists aren’t pressured enough. And if a main character is not squeezed hard enough, we’re not really going to know him because we’re not going to have an opportunity to see what’s inside him. (Angela Hunt)

Objective

The Lead must have an objective, a want so strong he must have it or suffer deep loss. This gives the story forward motion. An objective could be trying to get something (e.g. in a romance, the hero and heroine are trying to get love), or to get away from something (e.g. in a thriller, the protagonist might be trying to escape the antagonist).

The objective can’t be resolved too quickly:

Everyone in your story should want something badly. Every major character should have their own script and personal goals that will, at some point, bring them into conflict with the world and/or with your protagonist. (Angela Hunt)

Confrontation

Opposition to the Lead’s objective: novels are about confrontation, about conflict. There needs to be adhesive, something holding the opposing parties together, something which prevents the Lead or opposition from walking away from the fight.

Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on? (James Scott Bell)

A clear antagonist is important for confrontation. Just as there needs to be a Lead character, there needs to be someone in conflict with that Lead:

Your protagonist needs challenges to stretch and change him throughout his story journey, and that’s the role of the antagonist.(Angela Hunt)

Note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain: it is the character whose goals are in opposition to the goals of the lead, causing conflict. In a romance, this might be the hero—she lives and works in the country; his career is in the city. This is actually more interesting than a villain, as there are compelling reasons for both views: neither character is wrong.

Knockout

The final battle, or the final choice, faced by your protagonist. Your objective as an author is to leave the readers satisfied, but in an unpredictable way.

As you can see, like the GMC elements, the LOCK elements are a combination of plot and character. A well-thought out GMC and/or LOCK will ensure you have sufficient conflict to drive your plot and allow your characters to grow and change.