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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:

An Introduction to Plot

Randy Ingermanson states the essentials of fiction are plot, character, theme and building a credible story world. Although this series of posts will focus on plot, it is inseparable from character, and the two must be considered together (as you will see over the coming weeks). Ronald Tobias says:

Plot and character. They work together and are inseparable. To understand why a character makes one particular choice as opposed to another, there must be a logical connection (action/reaction). At times the character’s behaviour should surprise us, but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened.

What is Plot?

Plot is the journey taken by the protagonist, a journey in which he or she must face a series of problems to arrive at a resolution, and experience personal growth in the journey.

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind. Plots of the body are action plots. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond). Plots of the mind are character-driven plots where the focus is on the inner workings of human nature, such as romance or women’s fiction.

Plot is not the same as telling a story:

Before there was plot there was story. Story was the narration of evens in the sequence that they happened. Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction. Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: “Why does this happen?” (Tobias).

Conflict

The basis of fiction is conflict.

All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills (Sol Stein).

Ideally, conflict should be a combination of internal and external conflict that drives both the external plot and the internal character arc:

We expect events to affect the main character in such a way that they force a change in his personality. Your main character should be a different person at the end of the book than at the beginning (Tobias).

Conflict produces character growth in real life—and in fiction. Testing our characters is the only way they can change and grow, and believable character change makes compelling fiction. This is a biblical principle:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)

A good plot has a combination of fast-paced scenes and slower-paced scenes. But there also need to be ups and downs in the plot. It can’t all be conflict, with the situation getting worse and worse for the protagonist, or the reader can start to find the book tiring (the opposite situation is a complete lack of conflict, which the reader is likely to find boring).

In order to be good to their readers, authors have to be willing to be pretty nasty to their characters. One of the first things any novelist learns is to raise the stakes. Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character, then make it worse (KM Weiland)

Equally, the reader needs to see some minor victories so they can believe the protagonist will triumph over the odds.

Structure

Novels need a structure to support the story . As a reader, I find it more enjoyable to read a novel with some editing errors but a solid plot and structure than an error-free manuscript with a plot that doesn’t engage me. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t necessarily notice the structure of the book, whether it exactly follows a standard three-act structure. What I notice is places where the plot begins to drag:

If a film or book seems to drag, it’s usually because it is off structurally (James Scott Bell).

Ronald Tobias describes the classic structure:

The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem that must be solved. The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character. Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. This want (or need) is called intent.

Once you’ve established the intent of your character(s), the story goes into the second phase, which Aristotle called the rising action. The character pursues her goal. The action clearly grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. But the protagonist runs into problems that keep her from successfully completing [her] intention … reversals. Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal.

The final stage is the end, the logical outcome of the events in the first two phases. Everything—who, what and where—is explained, and everything makes sense. (Tobias)

This is commonly referred to as the three-act structure, and will be the subject of a later post. Next week we will examine conflict in more detail using the GMC method.