As a writer of novels, one of my main concerns is structure. If your novel does not have a certain conventional structure, it will never see the light of day. The same is true for screenplays. In fact, the structure of a novel is essentially the same as that of a screenplay, although that of a novel is less rigid.
Everyone has heard of the three-act structure, or any of its variations, the four, five, or six-act structure. They are pretty much the same, with some variation in terminology.
We’ve also heard of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” distilled slightly by Christopher Vogler in his book, “The Writer’s Journey.”
I generally use Vogler’s method, which I find easier to understand and apply than I do the three-act structure.
Here, though, I’m going to talk about Michael Hauge’s six-stage structure, which I find interesting, and easy to apply. There is an excellent set of videos on YouTube where he explains it pretty well, although his main purpose in the videos is to sell his books.
This issue is important for a couple of reasons. One, there is the eternal debate on whether one should outline, or write by the seat of your pants. Whatever structure you use works as a basic outline. If you don’t outline, then you must work your revisions to fit this structure, which means that the first draft is essentially an outline. Either way, in the end it must fit this, or one of the other, structures.
In reality, they all pretty much say the same thing, just using different terminology. So, here’s what Hauge (pronounced like Haig) says: (I’ve used the movie “Gladiator” to illustrate these points)
Every story has six stages and five turning points:
Stage I: Setup
The Hero/protag in his or her normal world, shown in circumstances that make them sympathetic. In Gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a Roman general about to fight the barbarians. He smiles when he sees a little bird fly off, his men obviously love him, he is a good general, a brave fighter, and we know he loves his wife and little boy. If they win this particular battle, he can go home. Within the first five minutes, we like this guy.
Turning Point #1 - 10% mark
At about 10% of the way into the movie (or novel) something happens to give the Hero the desire to move to new circumstances. It usually involves physical relocation.
In Gladiator, when the Emperor (Richard Harris) tells his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) that he will not be Emperor after his death, Commodus kills the Emperor. He summons everyone to announce that the Emperor has died, and that he is now the Emperor. Maximus knows that Commodus killed him, refuses to offer his allegiance, and leaves. He is arrested, told that his family will be killed, and is taken to the forest to be killed.
Stage II: New Situation
The first turning point leads the Hero to desire to move to a new situation.
In Gladiator, Maximus escapes the men tasked with killing him, plans to go save his family. He’s in Germany, and his family’s in Italy.
Here’s an important point: This is not the Hero's the main goal. This is often referred to as the inciting incident that is supposed to put the Hero’s feet on the path of his goal, or quest. But the main goal has not yet been defined.
This only causes the Hero to leave his ordinary world and start off. This is not what the story is about.
Turning Point #2: Change of Plans – 25% mark
This is where the Hero’s real goal is established. This is what the story is about.
In Gladiator, Maximus finds that his wife and child have been killed (horribly, I might add). This changes his objective from one of rescue to one of revenge. Everything else the Hero does is dedicated to reaching this goal.
This is also the end of Act I.
Stage III: Progress.
The plan seems to be working, but there are still obstacles that are either overcome, bypassed, or avoided.
In Gladiator, Maximus finds himself sold as a slave to a man who trains gladiators. He becomes a very good gladiator. This can be looked at as preparation for the battle to come.
Turning Point #3: The Point of No Return – 50% of the way through the story
There is no way he can return to his former life; life as he knew it is over.
In Gladiator, this is when Maximus removes his helmet to reveal his face and tells the Emperor his name, and tells him that he will have his revenge.
Stage IV: Complications and higher stakes.
It becomes more important to accomplish the goal, more difficult, and the obstacles are greater.
In Gladiator, Maximus learns that the Emperor’s nephew, a young boy who is the son of the woman Maximus once loved, is in danger. Also, the Emperor brings in a retired gladiator who was never defeated. To speed things along, the Emperor has arranged for tigers to pop up here and there during the fight.
Turning Point #4: Major Setback – 75% point.
Something happens that makes it look like all is lost. The plan is out the window, but he can’t give up.
In Gladiator, Maximus learns that he has 5,000 troops waiting for him outside Rome. They scheme with a Senator to have him freed and reunited with the soldiers so he can come in and restore Rome to the Senate.
The plot is discovered, the Senator arrested, and all of Maximus’s friends and allies killed or arrested. Maximus is captured. It seems that there is nothing he can do now.
End of Act II
Stage V: Final Push
The Hero must put everything on the line to achieve his goal, r die trying.
In Gladiator, this is the point at which the fight between Maximus and the Emperor in the Coliseum begins.
Turning Point #5: Climax – 90 – 99% point.
In Gladiator, Maximus kills the Emperor.
Stage VI: Aftermath
We see the Hero’s new life after achieving his goal.
In Gladiator, immediately after killing the Emperor, while mortally wounded, Maximus orders the release of the prisoners and restoration of the Senator. Then we see him being reunited with his wife and child in the afterlife.
The closing scene is literally a sunset over the Coliseum.
You should be able to take any movie or novel and apply this template and find these scenes. It’s actually very interesting to see that they really happen at or around these times in the movie. While watching the movie, write down when, on the time counter of the player, these events happen. They will be very close to the 10%, 25%, 75%, and 90% marks.
In Gladiator, they were at like the 16%, 29%, 76%, and so forth, based on the time given for the length of the movie on the case, and the point at which I marked it down.*
When you write your novel, you can use this as a way of outlining it. If you expect your manuscript to be about 400 pages, then you know that around page 40, the first turning point has to happen. From there the Hero is in his new situation, until the second turning point occurs at about page 100, and so on,
In screenplays, these points are quite rigid. In novels there's more room for play, but any agent or publisher will be looking for these things at or around those points.
Now, in the movie there were subplots not accounted for here, and they will also be in novels. For example, the Emperor (Commodus) was in love with his sister and kept trying to sleep with her. He also intended to dissolve the Senate. Tension was added because you always knew that his nephew (his sister’s son) was in danger from Commodus. So, these Stages and Turning Points have to do with the Hero’s life and his quest.
What do you think? Do you have a different view of when these things happened in the movie?
*If you’re not good at math, divide the time you wrote down by the total time of the movie.
Gladiator says it’s 2 hours and 35 minutes long. I wrote down that the Senator was arrested at the 1 hour and 59 minute mark. 2 hours and 35 minutes is 155 minutes, and 1 hour and 59 minutes is 119 minutes. The percentage is 119 divided by 155. This will give you .76, which is 76%.
It’s the same idea with page count. If the book is 350 pages long, then divide the page where the event happens by 350. So, the 10% point should be around page 35, although novels have more flexibility.