Story Structure with Michael Hague
Story Structure with Michael Hague

Story Structure with Michael Hague

I attended Michael Hauge’s two hour presentation on Story Structure at RWA in New York in June. The presentation was awesome filled with all those “aha” moments I needed for both the past manuscript and the current one.  I thought I’d share some notes with you.

To quote the first part of his bio on his website: “MICHAEL HAUGE is a story and script consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.”

Michael started the presentation with a definition of story structure. 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.

In Hollywood, the main focus is hero, outer motivation, outer conflict. Hero: protagonist or main character who is driving the story. Outer Motivation: desire the hero is pursuing 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.

Caveat: hero pursuing but is reluctant or in denial. The key is what your readers are rooting for.

Outer Conflict is outwardly visible.  Whatever your hero is pursuing, you 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 screen plays. This journey defines the plot.

Structure is a sequence of events. These events need to be in the right order to get the most emotional impact.

Inner Journey is invisible. 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. These always occur in the same place in the story.  In the screen play this is specific percentages through the play. In a story these percentages are not important.

1) Setup. Objectives:

   1) introduce the hero (or heroes) separately if two protagonists.

   2) Must create empathy with the character and pull in the reader. Key ways are:

        a) create sympathy

b) put them in immediate danger though it doesn’t have to be physical danger. Any threat = jeopardy.

c) make them likable and kind. The reader will like him/her if others like him/her.

3) Must show character living everyday life before the journey begins. This is where they start out.

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.

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.

2) 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.

3) 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.

** 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 the bridges and have 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. They will say it loud and clear.

  • ** Once your hero reaches point of no return and commits — the outside world starts closing in.
  • Forces of nature and other characters appear to create bigger obstacles in their path.
  • This leads to stage 4

4) Stage 4: Complications and Higher stakes

  • More at stake — loses destiny
  • Things get tougher and tougher

Turning Point #4 — Major Setback

  • All is lost – must be insurmountable
  • You must break them up or separate the lovers by something.
  • May go back to the way he lived before, but he can’t go back, he’s burned his bridges.
  • Final push — achieve the goal or die trying. Pace accelerates.

Turning Point #5 Climax

  • Resolution. Do they win the love or not.
  • All must be resolved, but the story isn’t over.

5) Stage 5 Final stage.  Aftermath.

  • Picture of the new life the hero will live as a result of completing the journey.
  • Glimpse of HEA
  • 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

  • The reason the character is going after the goal.
  • The inner journey follows the same structure as the outer journey.

You will need to ask certain questions about the hero:

1) What is the character’s longing or need?

  • Longing: deeply head 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 are too afraid to go after. Some characters are so shutdown they can’t express it in words.
  • Need is a piece missing from the characters soul that they aren’t doing anything about.  People with a need lack connections.

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 — 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.
  • Emotional armor your hero wears.
  • Character persona
  • What the character has become to protect herself.

6) What is my hero’s essence?

  • Essence — the true self under the armor. A person’s truth.
  • Who does my hero have the potential to become if the fear is gone?


  • Inner journey is the hero’s transformation from living fully in his/her identity to living fully in her essence.
  • This is the arc. Happens over time and is gradually occurring.

The tug of war between living with identity (safe) and living with essence (not safe) is internal conflict.

The internal journey takes the same stages and turning points as the outer journey.

1) Setup — living fully in the identity.  Hero must be stuck or dead in the water. This is who they have been for a long time.

2) Opportunity – a new situation.

3) Stage 2 Living in identity but a glimpse of living with his essence. Identity will be the comfort zone.  Formulate a goal – outer motivation of the story.

4) Stage 3. Why is it so scary to move into one’s essence?

  • Must be willing to leave comfort zone.
  • Identities protect us. We believe our identities are who we really are. Identity is who she thinks she is.
  • They have to give up their identity
  • Only way to give up her identity — is a must die situation. There must be fear.
  • Stage 3 — must step into essence to move towards the goal.
  • This will cause her to retreat into identity until point of no return. She declares and shows the world her essence and courage. Move fully into essence.

5) Stage 4: More and more in one’s essence.

  • #1 Moving further away from comfort zones
  • #2 Outside world starts closing in.

6) Major Setback

  • The retreat is because it will be so difficult and so scary, the hero retreats back into her identity.  This is where the separation occurs.
  • Conscious that identity is not who she is and it doesn’t fit.
  • They  take the chance and make final push to achieve the goal and are forced to be in their essence.

7) Climax

  • If the hero has found the courage she will find her HEA.
  • A tragedy is where the hero doesn’t find HEA. He lacks courage or finds it too late.

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.

Sorry for the rough nature of these notes. The class was amazing and I’m hoping to one day attend a longer workshop.

— Amy