Updated: Nov 29, 2020
One of the main questions people ask when looking for writing tips is how to plan a story. To plan a good story, you need a strong plot structure, which has been identified as one of the weaknesses in book writing by editors. Writers have lots of awesome ideas, but putting it on paper with great timelines and structure is a little more challenging. When I’m writing a book, I love to use Michael Hauge’s six stage plot structure to guide me a little, and then take it from there in my own way with other story planning methods.
So, I thought I’d share how I plan a story using the six stage plot structure, and other plot structure tips, to see whether it helps you strengthen your book writing skills. I’ll start with the others, which is a great way to start, and then how you can expand these into the 6 stages built by Michael Hauge.
Sum up your story
When writing a book, it’s always great to start off by summing it up in one sentence. If you can’t sum up your plot in one sentence, it’ll be harder for you to expand on it. I like to start with this as it helps me get into the mood for my next story. I even do it now and again to remind myself of the overall goal of my book.
E.g. A princess goes on a quest to rescue her kidnapped brother from a neighbouring kingdom.
You can see who the main character is, what her goal is, what her actions will be, and where she’s going, and who can potentially be other characters.
Write your story in 3 sentences
Now, you have to expand on that one sentence by writing your story in 3 sentences. Most stories are written in the 3 part plot structure that we all know: beginning, middle, and end. How does it start, what happens in the middle, and how does it end … essentially. So, that sentence you wrote, now expand on it to tell yourself how it starts, a part of the middle, and how it ends.
The princess of Elstrath learns her little brother has been kidnapped by an enemy kingdom while he was travelling to visit allies, and sets out to bring him home.
On her mission to save her brother, the princess overcomes challenges, forges new alliances, and learns about her true self and values.
Knowing the wrong move could cause a war between the two kingdoms, the princess and her new friends find a way to reason with the main antagonist to let him free.
So, we’re still on basic details, not getting bogged down in the more intricate points. But, it gives us an idea of what we have to write in each story section, which is why I like it. A rough guide and leaves room for freedom and creativity.
We know the kingdom the princess comes from, when the little brother was taken, and why she’s leaving. We know she faces challenges (many that will make her reevaluate herself and how she views herself the world), and meets others. Then, we know what will happen at the end: she won’t barge in for a fight, she’ll try politics and tactics, knowing any wrong step will cause larger ripples and pain. Likely, she learned this enroute in the challenges she faced.
How to use Michael Hauge’s six step plot structure to create a strong story and timeline
As I mentioned earlier, story structure and the timeline of the story is one of the most identified areas for development by editors (mostly, I understand this from the various authors and editors I’ve worked with and from what both sides have said!). So, once you’ve got your basic story plot planned, and the simple 3 stage plot structure outlined in a sentence each, you’re ready to give yourself more detailed points in your story.
I’d like to mention that I’m not a deep planner when it comes to writing stories. But, I’m not a pantser, either! I believe you need to set yourself a good foundation with basic boundaries and points to guide you as you write. Too much freedom, and many feel overwhelmed. But, a few points to help you see where you’re going, and your creativity will move freely. It’s become much easier for me to write since I started planning my stories this way!
What is the six step plot structure by Michael Hauge?
Essentially, it helps you plot your story in just 6 sections, giving you a guide of roughly where things should be happening in your plot, and what happens in between. I find it really helpful. He says:
10% into your story is turning point 1 (opportunity). You’ve written the beginning, setting the scene, then at 10%, there are hints of what will happen. The scene-setting is over, and you start discussing what leads up to the character ‘getting on with their goal’.
25% is turning point 2 (change of plans). This is often where the character sets out on their mission (either forced by circumstance or by their own decision).
50% is the point of no return! (Plot point 3) They’re too deep into it now. Either way, something has to happen.
75% is turning point 4 (Major setback). Everything goes wrong, it feels hopeless, they almost give up, but they have to try their hardest with their final energy and everything they have to make their goal happen (or not, depending what ending you want).
90-98% is turning point 5 (climax). This is often the big battle, the main mission, what makes them try to achieve their goal in that final moment.
98-100% is the final stage (resolution). How does your story end? Are they left better off or worse off after what happens?
Writing a story with this plot structure
You have your 3 step plot structure, you know what is happening in your story at a basic level, and now you have to fit it to these six step plot points to give you a guide. I love the use of percentages, as it helps me know roughly where to expect certain plot points.
Most genres have a recommended word count. If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer like me, this is often between 80,000 and 120,000 words. I like to settle for 100,000 as it’s also the boundary of ‘this is a bit long for modern publishing houses, and it gets expensive to edit and produce’. Plus, it’s easy to calculate percentages.
E.g. I know at 10,000 words in, I should have hinted at the main goal of the story. I also know at 75,000 words in, my characters need to be feeling like all hope is lost.
Of course, this isn’t exact. You don’t have to freak out if all hell breaks loose at 67,000 words instead of 75,000 words, but having the guide there is so helpful.
So, at 10% of your recommended word count, what happens in your story? What is the hint to your mission or goal or plot? In our example, perhaps the princess hears gossip that a prince has been kidnapped, or a royal caravan has been raided. Maybe she even hears the new itself and starts planning. Either way, we know at about 25%, she leaves to find him. (Again, this doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s a great guide to knowing how to set a timeline for your book.)
This also means we know that at about 90%, we should start writing the climax: where the princess and her new comrades enter the enemy kingdom and start dealing with the main antagonist in the hopes to save her little brother. What happens in yours?
Does this plot structure really exist in current books?
When I first saw this, I thought it was too rigid. Plots happen in their own time, I thought, even though I knew in the 3 plot structure, you had to have the rising conflicts and challenges that provided tension, then the climax. But, I found just the 3 plot structure a bit difficult to imagine what pace I should set, so I thought I’d check books I have to see whether they fitted this 6 step plot structure, or whether this was, as I originally thought, too rigid.
I picked up books I’d read in my bookcase and had a peek, turning roughly to 10%, 25%, 50%, 75%, and near the 90% end mark to see if it worked:
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
Which books on your bookcase fit this, too?
They all followed this roughly. As I said, it wasn’t exactly halfway that the ‘no turning back’ point happened. It wasn’t page 100 out of 400 that the hero went on her quest. But, it was roughly there for each step, and it encouraged me that this was a good guide to use, at least for fiction books!
So I tried it myself, planning what roughly happens at those points so I knew what key plot points I had in my stories. From there, and between them, my story could develop how it wanted until it reached that point.
It was so much easier to write knowing I had guides and boundaries. I experienced less stress and writer’s block, and I could focus on my story, characters, world, and become a part of the story I was writing.
Watch this on YouTube!
Plan a story using this plot structure
I really think it will help writers and budding authors start their journeys in writing a book. Editors often relate to known plot structures and guides when they’re editing your book, so it would make sense to use that to help you plan a story and write it. It’s not about strictly following it and feeling trapped, but about giving yourself a guide so that you can be more free and creative in the actual writing of it, without worrying about whether you’ve got enough rising action or whether you’ve got the starting point in the right place. Give it a go and see what you think!