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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:

Writing Backstory

Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story: #WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice?

There are many “rules” to writing good fiction. One of them is to keep backstory to the back of the story, to not use any backstory in the first fifty pages.

Is this a good writing tip, or more bad writing advice?

Don’t we need to introduce our characters to the reader at the beginning of the story? Don’t we need to give enough of their personal character history to enable the reader to understand what’s going on?

As with many pieces of writing advice, the answer is yes. And no. Or no, and yes, depending on which way you prefer to look at the issue.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is anything that happens before our story begins. The reader doesn’t need to know the character’s entire life history … although the author does. Yes, the reader needs to know some of the character’s personal history. The trick with writing great fiction is understanding what the reader needs to know, and when.

One of the first writing craft books I read was How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard MIttlemark. One of the quotes I copied was this:

Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Do not write hundreds of pages explaining… why the characters are living the way they are when the story begins, or what past events made the characters into people who would have that story.

I thought this was ridiculous. Surely no author would be so … so … stupid? So naive?

But by some strange quirk of fate, the very next novel I read had exactly this problem. I’m not going to embarrass the author by naming them, or telling you the title, or even the genre. I don’t remember much about the story. What I do remember is that whenever a new character was introduced, the author took the opportunity to share that character’s life story.

And the story of how their parents met and married.

And sometimes even the story of how their grandparents met and married, and how many children they had, and when, and where, and why, and …

And none of this information had any relevance to the story at hand. It was well written. It was interesting. But it was irrelevant to the present story (which is probably why I’ve forgotten the basics of the actual story).

Yes, some authors have a problem with backstory.

That’s not to say you can’t use backstory at the beginning of a novel.

You can introduce some backstory. In fact, you have to use introduce some backstory to give the reader an understanding of your main character’s goals and motivations, which influence their central internal and external conflicts. You may need to use backstory to give your reader a reason to care about your character.

But flip-flopping between the past and the present at the beginning of the story can leave you with a novel that confuses readers. Instead, ensure your opening chapter clarifies:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • Why does s/he want that?
  • When is this story set?
  • Where is this story set?

And answer these questions in the present timeline of the story.

Lay out actions in sequential order. Don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader .
– Janalyn Voigt, via WordServeWaterCooler.com

In Media Res

The use of backstory often relates to a common writing issue: new writers often start their story in the wrong place. Novels should start in media res—in media res—in the middle of the thing.

Your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, where the plot kicks in.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 2

But characters don’t emerge fully formed on the page. They have personal histories, just like real people. They have likes and dislikes, just like real people. Some of that is directly relevant to the novel’s plot, and some is not. But without the backstory, there is no present story.

Your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral”. He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 3

Your character has a backstory.

In fact, all your characters have their own backstory, and that backstory is what influences their lives in the present (or in whatever “present” your novel is set, whether that’s the past, the present, or the future).

As a writer, you need to know this backstory. You need to know what has formed your protagonist and antagonist into the characters you are writing. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends you do write three story-specific backstory scenes. But these aren’t included in the final manuscript. The information in the scenes might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

Margie Lawson uses the illustration of a pane of glass. Imagine writing all your backstory on a large pane of glass, them dropping the glass so it smashes into slivers. Then pick up those slivers, one at a time, and insert them into your story.

A sliver at a time. Not the entire window. At the time when it best serves the story to reveal that information.

An Example of Good Backstory

I’ve recently read A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. Much of the first chapter is backstory, but it’s written well and integrated into the present scene (well, the novel’s present. It’s historical fiction). Here’s an example:

They lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone walk-up that had once been a prestigious building, but had fallen on hard times in recent decades. Much like her own family.

Just two sentences, but a lot of backstory. What do we learn?

  • The setting—where the point of view character lives (a brownstone walk-up in Greenwich Village, New York).
  • A brief description that hints rather than tells—once prestigious hints the building is in a state of disrepair without telling us about the peeling paint or the chipped bricks.
  • A sliver of backstory—her own family has fallen on hard times.
  • A hint at timing—the problem goes back decades.

Clever. Very clever.

It’s also shown in the voice of the character, not the voice of the author.

This paragraph illustrates that we can—and even should—use backstory in the beginning of the story. But we need to sliver it in, not dump it. The author could then have gone on to describe exactly how the family fell on hard times—and she does. But not here, because it’s not relevant to the story at this point.

So here are four tips for writing backstory:

  • Know the backstory of your main characters.
  • Know how their backstory contributes to the present story.
  • Include only what is relevant to the story.
  • Include backstory as slivers.

What tips or questions do you have about backstory?

Best of the Blogs

Best of the Blogs | 2 September 2017

I haven’t posted for the last two weeks (did you notice?). The first weekend, I was attending the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference, listening to awesome speakers like Kristen Lamb and Christie Craig.

Kristen Lamb shared lots of great tips about developing an author platform and using social media, and I blogged about that at Australasian Christian Writers (click here to read my post). Christie Craig was a brilliant combination of writing craft, humour, and inspiration. I’ve got a guest post on her presentation coming up in a couple of weeks at International Christian Fiction Writers, so I’ll link to that when it posts.

Then last weekend my husband took me away for long weekend to celebrate my birthday. We visited the South Island—Queenstown, Arrowtown, and Wakaka, and visited several Lord of the Rings filming locations. Not that any of you like #LOTR …

Anyway, let’s get back to what’s been going on in the writing world this week.


YA Author Caught Manipulating the NYT Bestseller List

There have been several stories over the years of authors buying bulk copies of their books to gain a place on the prestigious (or is that once-prestigious) New York Times Bestseller list. The most famous (infamous?) in Christian circles is probably Mark Driscoll, but he is not alone.

The latest story is about YA author Lani Sarem and her YA novel, Handbook for Mortals. Despite being published by a miniscule publisher, with no preorder buzz, and out of stock on Amazon, the book somehow managed to make it to the top of the NYT Young Adult Hardcover list. This struck some YA blogger types as odd, so they did a little investigation.

To cut a long story short, they found someone (the author?) had manipulated the list by contacting bookstores which report to the NYT and ordering 29 copies (because orders of 30 or more copies trigger a warning that the book is being purchased in bulk). It appears these orders counted as sales, even though the book wasn’t delivered or paid for.

Good on the New York Times for doing their own research and revising the list.

How to Self-Publish

Self-Publishing Mastery is a free online course from Ian Robb Wright, run through Teachable. I’ve signed up, but haven’t completed it myself. David Gaughran has checked it out, and says while there is an upsell at the beginning, it’s only USD 28, and the rest of the course looks like it contains good solid content with no sales pitches. So if you’re looking to find out about self-publishing, this could be a good place to start.

Ebook Formatting

Draft2Digital have introduced professional ebook templates for epub and mobi files. This provides self-published authors with an alternative to the dreaded Smashwords meatgrinder, or the other options like Scrivener (which I can’t get the hang of), Vellum (which I can’t use, because I don’t use a Mac), and Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates (which I do like, but you have to buy them).

You can find out more at the Draft2Digital blog. How do you format your ebooks? Will you try the Draft2Digital templates?

Developmental Editing

I have a lot of potential clients approach me asking for copyediting and proofreading, but when I look at their manuscript, it becomes obvious their novels are not ready for copyediting. They need more work. They need a developmental edit. In Five Reasons Your Novel Needs a Developmental Edit, Jonathan Vars shares what a developmental edit should cover.


Free Story Genius Webinar

One of my favourite writing craft books is Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Lisa has teamed up with writing coach Jeannie Nash at Author Accelerator to offer an exclusive webinar next week on Thursday 7 September/Friday 8 September (it’s 10:30am Thursday Pacific Time, which unfortunately translates as 5:30 am Friday for me in New Zealand).

I expect there will be a sales pitch for Author Accelerator’s Story Genius training course, but I’m sure there will be lots of great content as well. It’s free, and there will be a replay (for those Australians who aren’t prepared to get up at 3:30am).

Writing Agathokakological Stories

Finally, Telling the Truth in Fiction shares some inspiration from Steven James, on why our stories must be agathokakological … telling good and evil. What James doesn’t say is that in order to tell the truth in fiction, we must know The Truth (which he does). That’s our role as Christian authors, no matter who our audience is.

Best of the Blogs

Best of the Blogs: 17 June 2017

Best of the Blogs

The best posts I’ve read this week on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing.

The focus this week is on writing craft. That’s not deliberate—it just happened that way. Some weeks it’s a mix, some weeks it isn’t.

Story Genius

First up, Myra Johnson visits Seekerville to discuss Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It’s a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it. Myra talks about the “third rail,” the emotional power that keeps our story moving forward.

Using the MBTI for Characterisation

I don’t know about you, but I find getting to know “my” characters (the characters I’m writing) one of the most difficult aspects of writing a first draft. And characterisation is also what makes or breaks a book for me—that’s how important characterisation is.

In fact, Lisa Cron says:

Ultimately, all stories are character driven—yes, all stories.

That’s because great stories aren’t about what happens as much as they are about how the characters react to and make sense of what happened.

In 5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for Characters, KM Weiland recants on her previous aversion to using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to profile her characters, and gives five great tips. And do read the comments. One commenter has written a virtual essay, which is informative (and technical).

Inspirational Romance

Jamie Lynn Booth visits Kristen Lamb’s website to discuss Why the World Needs More Inspirational Romance.

This is another post where the comments are as enlightening as the post. Many of the commenters describe themselves as Christians, but say they aren’t writing with the major CBA publishers would recognise as Christian fiction. As one commenter says:

I firmly believe that God has called us to be truth-tellers in a broken world.

I take the point. A lot of Christian fiction is telling the Truth (God’s Truth), sure. But it’s failing to tell it in an authentic way that will resonate with non-Christians. While I love Christian fiction that’s written for Christians by Christians, there is also a need for fiction written by Christians for the general market, but that will still lead people to God.

Part of this is about having flawed characters non-Christian readers will recognise.

Authentic characters.

And that’s what Lanette Kauten is talking about in Writing Authentic Characters (also at Kristen Lamb’s website). Lanette is a Christian, but isn’t writing “Christian fiction”. She says:

My characters are a part of the world they live in and act accordingly.

And her world is messy. Her heroine is described as a confused atheist in a lesbian relationship escaping from her upbringing in a weird Charismatic church. That’s part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. Her message is that our writing must be authentic.

Now for something lighter …

I enjoy humour. Who doesn’t? But I often come across novels where the humour either falls flat, or crosses the line from humour into a cringefest of slapstick.

In this excellent post at the BookBaby blog, Scott McCormick explains why: because Your Story Needs a Good Straight Man. If I think about it, a lot of the humour that didn’t work for me as a reader was because both characters were trying to be funny. And that doesn’t work. As Scott explains, good humour needs a straight man.

The best humour isn’t when one character says something funny and the other character laughs. It’s when one character says something funny, and the other character ignores the humour and carries on with the conversation. Terry Pratchett was a master at this.

McCormick also says:

Interestingly, a straight man doesn’t have to be limited to comedies. A good straight man can make your heroes more heroic, and your tragic figures more tragic.

Worth thinking about …

Do you use humour in your writing? (Or humor?)

I’m currently running a giveaway of Then There Was You, the new novel from RITA finalist (and Christian Editing Services client) Kara Isaac. Click here to enter.