Story Structure with Michael Hauge

Given that this is the new year and we have set goals or resolutions for our writing careers, I thought I would resurrect a blog I did after the 2011 RWA Nationals in New York. Nationals was amazing. I learned a great deal, met some really great people and had quite a few fan girl moments including talking with Stephanie Laurens and Gaelen Foley on the plot structures of Hawaii 5-0, but that’s another blog.

Michael Hauge ResizedMichael Hauge presented two hours on story structure. I just sat and wrote everything he said as quickly as I could. Later I purchased both his books: Writing Screenplays that Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.  You can find more information on his website:

Story Structure and some definitions

Story Structure is all about emotion and how you elicit emotion in the reader.  All stories are built on three basic components: character, desire, and conflict. Structure is a sequence of events. These events need to be in the right order to get the most emotional impact.

In Hollywood, the main focus is hero, outer motivation or outer conflict. Hero: protagonist or main character is driving the story. Outer Motivation is the desire the hero is pursuing. This is visible. What does your hero want? Visualize it. It needs to be something that describes the visible elements of your plot. You need visible finish lines.

The basic outer motivation of Hollywood and most romance novels is to win. They want to win something (someone’s heart…etc.) The hero must win the love of another character by the end of the story. Finish line is HEA. Your protagonist may be reluctant, but that allows the reader to root for him more.

For whatever your hero is pursuing, you should create visible conflict and complications to keep the hero from achieving the goal. We need to see what stands in the way. A hero can be pursuing two goals — visible goals equally important and one is the love story. This creates the Hero’s Outer Journey – Visible. Applies to books as it does to the screenplays. This journey defines the plot.

Inner Journey is invisible; it’s feelings.  If the outer journey is accomplishment, the inner journey is one of transformation.  It is the journey of internal change and transformation — transformation from living in fear to living courageously.

A writer that focuses on inner journey rather than outer journey tends to have a plot that is a lot of doing nothing. The inner journey will be stronger if it comes from a compelling outer journey. There are six stages and five key turning points that make up the structure for this type of journey. These always occur in the same place in the story.

story-structureSteps of the Outer Journey

Setup. Objectives: introduce the hero (or heroes) separately if two protagonists; create empathy with the character and pull in the reader. Key ways are: create sympathy; put them in immediate danger or jeopardy; make them likable and kind.

Show the character in everyday life. There is a push to get the story going and have the hero and heroine meet.  Hague doesn’t always agree with this. The setup needs to be in sequence or chronological order. Do this then decide where to open the story.  It must show everyday life so the reader understands where the hero starts and how he has to change. This also helps decide where to open the story.

Turning Point #1: Opportunity.  Something happens that has never happened before. It creates a desire however the desire created by the opportunity is a preliminary goal to move to Stage 2. It isn’t the overall story goal but it moves the story forward.  It is very typical for the hero to change location with the opportunity.

Stage Two: Primary Objective — figure out events going on and what the rules are for the next situation.

Turning Point #2: Change of Plans.  New desire that is the outer motivation for outer goal. Should not pursue their goal until turning point #2.  No matter how quickly editors want the romance to start, build up to the second turning point.

Stage 3: Progress.  Whatever the outer motivation, they must have a plan for accomplishing the goal. Doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles. Emotion builds out of conflict, not desire. The emotion is what conflict separates the two people.  In stage 3, there must be obstacles in the characters way.

In most romance fiction, so much emphasis is placed on the inner conflict rather than the outer conflict. Doesn’t make for good movies. If you wish your novel to be easier to move to a movie, there must be an emphasis on the outer conflict. You may need a second motivation especially if they are in denial. He needs to be safe. Obstacles need to be outer obstacles. Sustain the emotion with outer conflict.

Turning Point #3: Point of No Return. This is a bigger commitment to the goal. The hero has burned his bridges and has no choice but to move forward. This is the midpoint of the romance where the hero will make some sort of declaration or take action. In many stories this is where the hero and love interest get together and make a bigger commitment. Once this commitment is made, the outside world closes in and they meet with bigger obstacles.

Stage 4: Complications and Higher stakes. More at stake — loses destiny. Things get tougher and tougher

Turning Point #4 — Major Setback. All is lost. If they are lovers, they should be separated. The hero will want to and try to go back to the way he lived before, but he can’t. he has burned his bridges. We are at the point of the story where it’s the final push. The hero must achieve the goal or die trying. The pace of the story accelerates.

Turning Point #5: Climax. This is the resolution. Do they win the love or not. At this point in the story, all is resolved, but it’s not the end of the story.

Stage 5 Final Stage: Aftermath. Picture of the new life the hero will live as a result of completing the journey. There are glimpses of the happily ever after for the couple. A sense of what life will be like in the new everyday world. In a sad ending we still need to see the new life and new everyday world.

Inner Journey

Woven in with the outer journey is the inner one. This is the emotional reason the character is going after the goal. It follows the same structure as the outer journey.

You will need to ask certain questions about the hero to help you to build the case for an inner journey.

1) What is the character’s longing or need?  Longing: deeply held desire that the hero is paying lip service to. He’s not doing anything to change this longing nor is he taking action.  Longing is something the character is too afraid to go after.

2) What is the character’s wound?  Wound — an unhealed source of pain from the past (backstory). This wound is subconscious or the character is not over it. Make sure you reveal and not tell here.

3) What is the character’s belief?  When we are wounded, we take on a belief of what we perceive to be reality.  Belief comes out of the wounding experience. They are never accurate but always logical.

4) What is your hero’s fear?  We are afraid to create the situation that causes the pain and wound. This is emotional fear.

5)What is my hero’s identity? Identity is the false self your character presents to the world to protect her from the fear that grows out of the belief that was created by the wound long ago before the story begins. Think of it as the emotional armor your hero wears to protect himself.

6) What is my hero’s essence? The essence of a character is his true self under the armor. It is the person he will become once the fear is gone.

The inner journey is the hero’s transformation from living fully in his/her identity to living fully in her essence. It’s also referred to as the character’s arc. It evolves through the life of the story.  Internal conflict will arise out of the war between a character’s identity (safe) and his essence (not safe).  It takes the same journey and stages as the outer journey.

From the beginning of the story, as he lives every day life, the character is living in his identity. He is living a safe existence. The Opportunity brings a new situation. Through the journey, the character is given glimpses of living with his essence. Identity will become the comfort zone.  As he reaches the goal, internal conflict comes out of risking the essence.  As the character travels to the resolution of the story, the character lives more and more of his essence and moves further from the comfort zone.

Transformation takes place when the character overcomes the final setbacks that are part of the black moment and finds the courage to find his happy ever after. In a tragedy, the  hero will lack the courage or finds it too late and doesn’t achieve his HEA.

In a romance the hero and heroine follow the same path — reach turning points simultaneously. This creates more conflict. Put more weight on the visible goals.  If you are giving the heroine another goal — love interest, must be intertwined with the primary goal.  This makes a stronger story. Two goals come into conflict, love interest may come into conflict with her reaching her goal.

If you have the chance to take part of one of Michael Hauge’s workshops, I highly recommend it.  I ended up with almost 20 pages of notes from just two hours.  The books were also useful and I recommend them both.


10 thoughts on “Story Structure with Michael Hauge

  1. Excellent info from Hague. Thanks for sharing and doing such a thorough job, Amy. Think I’ll print off and make a chart and be sure to make sure I’m hitting those points BEFORE writing the book next time rather than going back to fix. 😉

  2. Great post Amy! So much fabulous information here. I’ve heard so many great things about Michael Hague and his workshops. He was actually at Anaheim actually, and now I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of it! Hopefully he’ll be in Atlanta or another future RWA conference. I’ll be sure to go to his workshop.

  3. Amy, you can’t get any better than Michael Hague! I had the greatest pleasure to hear him speak at two RWA conferences and have listened to him on my MP3 player. Let me tell you, his advice and theories NEVER grow old. And his system made sense in a way nothing I’d ever read or heard before had. You can listen to him again and again and continue to learn something new or have an interesting story idea revelation. My advice, take his advice! LOL!

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!!

  4. What a great post! I have just starting storyboarding according to Jenna Patrick’s Cut the Crap. Michael Hauge’s inner vs outer journey really helps with the turning points! Thanks for reviving this!

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