Posts tagged with: plotting

What I Learned From Michael Hauge Part 2

Last week, I shared my notes on Michael’s opening comments and his insight into the Hero’s inner Journey during his Master Class. Today I’m sharing my notes on his six-stage Plot Structure and at which point the hero’s Transformation occurs.


If you’ve visit Mr. Hauge’s website, you can see his Six-Stage Plot Structure chart.

It’s broken down into Set-up, New situation, Progress, Complications & Higher Stakes, Final Push and Aftermath. In between each he’s labeled 10% Opportunity, 25% change of Plans, 50% Point of No Return, 75% Major Setback and 90-99% Climax.

Setup-Stage One:

We introduce are hero in his everyday life, the life he has lead for years. He is stuck.

During the intro we need to create empathy for the character and this must be done before any character flaws are revealed. The reader must like or sympathize with the character before flaws are shown.

The character must be put into jeopardy. Not necessarily life threatening, but in danger of losing something of importance to character

Character must be likeable. Good hearted toward others.

Or, there should be humor. Character has the courage to say what we would not.

Also, we need to show that hero has the skills to overcome what will stand in his way.

 At 10% mark: Hero is stuck in his identity.

Opportunity happens (1st turning point) and creates an immediate desire to enter new situation and a need to react. This is not the main goal for the character. It is a primarily goal that sets him on a path. It can be either a curse or a blessing.  

New Situation-Stage Two: opportunity forces character to react while keeping in his identity. However, in reacting he gets a glimpse of his essence. He could get a glimpse of his essence from the point of view of a secondary character.  (Hero reacts and secondary character states, “Man that was so cool. I can’t believe you just did that.”)

 At 25% mark: Change of Plans

Your hero starts his journey, believing he will remain in his identity, which actually forces him toward his essence. This is where the outer motivation begins. The Hero defines his success.  In Braveheart, it’s the moment his bride is killed.

Stage Three: Process

Our hero starts to take on elements of essence. He defines a plan to accomplish goal. During this stage he wavers between identity and essence. He feels vulnerable in essence and retreats to identity.

At 50% mark: Point of No Return

Something must happen to make our hero totally commit. At this point, they let go of their identity and accept the change and move forward. Example in romance, their declaration of love.

In Pride and Prejudice, it when Mr. Darcy reveals his love for Elizabeth. In Hunt For Red October, it’s when Jack Ryan jumps out of the helicopter and into the sea, determined to save the world from a nuclear war.

Stage Four: Complications & Higher Stakes

Our hero steadily evolves toward essence. He makes a promise to someone or vows to himself. “As God as my witness. I will never go hungry again.” Scarlett in Gone With The Wind.

The ticking clock gets louder. Obstacles get bigger. Pace quickens. More conflict is add.

At 75%: Major Setback

Something has to happen that makes the hero stop dead in his tracks. He retreats to old life/identity and discovers that you can never go home again. The truth he’s been searching for comes out.

During this section of the story a secondary character will come to the hero and say “Why are you not acting like you?” In Notting Hill, it’s the scene where Will is sitting with his friends and has told them about Anna baring her soul to him and Spike enters and states, “You draft prick!” It the wake up moment for Will.

Stage Five: Final Push

Your hero must pull up his bootstraps and go for the goal. No holding back.

In Independence Day, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum get on the alien ship and take off to destroy the mother ship.

Depending on your story, between 90% and 99% the Climax will occur.

The main goal will be resolved. He wins the girl. He defeats the villain. In You’ve Got Mail, It’s the moment when Kathleen and Joe meet in the park and she realizes her on-line friend has been Joe the whole time.

Stage Six: Aftermath

We see our hero in his essence enjoying his new life. Again using Notting Hill, it the end of the movie where we see Will participating in Anna’s world and both of them comfortable in their new roles.

And there you have my notes. I hope I’ve helped you in understanding story structure.


His Witness To Evil

Autumn Jordon is the award-winning author of romantic suspense-mystery-thrillers such as her Golden Heart Finalist and Golden Leaf winner His Witness To Evil. After her family business was comprised by The Russian Mafia and the FBI investigated, she grabbed her note pad and pen and went on to interview the agents. Join her newsletter at and be privy to upcoming releases, sales, and events. Also, you’ll receive free reads and be entered into her monthly contest for great prizes

Using Archetypes To Find Your Story

I write romance, and that means my stories are, by necessity, character driven.  That doesn’t mean I ignore plot or story — my books have plenty of plot, and storytelling is my favorite thing about writing.  But in a romance the story should grow out of the struggles of the characters.  More important, the love story in every romance requires the characters to grow.  The hero and heroine need to learn something by the end of the book that allows them to have their happy ending.  The bigger the transformation the more satisfying the ending.

Coming up with ideas for that inner character arc is not easy for me.  I can come up with ideas for situations and story lines and conflict, but figuring out what a character has to learn before he or she gets to the end of the story is really hard.  I need all the help I can get. 

Otherwise I’m liable to find myself in the middle of a story and suddenly realize that the characters are two-dimensional and don’t really have any significant barrier to their love story.  When that happens, major revisions are usually required. 

I hate major revisions.  Like the plague.  Unfortunately, when I was first learning how to tell a story, this happened all. The. Time. 

MyssCardsAnd then, one day about ten years ago, I went to a plotting workshop put on by my local RWA chapter.  And, of course, the instructor started out by telling us that we needed to know our characters in order to tell a good story.  I knew this, but I was clueless as to how to actually accomplish that. 

And then the instructor did a remarkable thing — she brought a bright red box out of her bag that looked like a box of tarot cards. “These might help,” she said.

They weren’t tarot cards.  They were “archetype” cards developed by the self-help guru, Caroline Myss. 

I don’t know a whole lot about new-age self-awareness, but I recognized a good thing when I saw it.  Right after the workshop I rushed right out to my local bookstore and found a deck of these cards for myself.  I’ve been using them ever since.  (Follow this link to a full listing of all of the Caroline Myss archetypes, along with detailed explanations of each of them.)

There are many archetype systems that authors can use, but I love playing with my cards.  They make it fun.  But they are also so useful because each of of these archetypes comes with a list of positive and negative attributes.  The negative attributes are particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out what lessons a character needs to learn before he or she can find love.

Let me give you an example of how I used these archetypes in the novel I started writing yesterday. 

MyssBeggarMy heroine is a “beggar.” The card gives me a few clues to this archetype, but a further exploration on the Caroline Myss webpage leads to the understanding that: 1) a beggar is starving for love and attention, and 2) a beggar doesn’t feel self-empowered.  She has to rely on others for sustenance for her self-esteem.

Okay, that immediately gets my brain working.  What kind of character would match that archetype?  I came up with a woman who set off to change the world only to have the world throw her back.  She’s lost her job, her home, her life savings.  She’s come back to town to live with the mother who never really gave her the attention she craved.  And she has to face a community who expected great things from her and who now sees her as a failure.  There is a job opportunity in town, but she’s going to have to beg someone for it.  She desperately craves validation from the people around her, but of course they are not going to give her what she craves.  (But they might just give her what she needs.)

Okay, so far so good.  Now comes the fun part.  What does this archetype need to learn in order to have a happy ending?  The answers come pretty quickly:  1) confront and/or reconcile with the mother who neglected her in some way, 2) take control of her life in some way by finding a job that no one expects her to succeed at, and 3) develop a relationship with a hero who refuses to do the one thing she thinks she needs — validate her existence.  (To be a fully realized person, she’s going to have to validate herself.)

See what just happened?  Not only did the card help me find a character, but it gave me the beginning of a story line, complete with built in conflicts.  Of course I’m not done yet.  I need a hero for my beggar.

MyssHermitOff I go to the cards again, and I find the one for “hermit,” an archetype that has withdrawn from the world because of his own fears.  A hermit also refuses to help those in need.

Wow, that immediately generates a ton of ideas.  I used this archetype to come up with a hero who has withdrawn from society because his wife has died.  Now he is intently focused on trying to keep his dead wife’s memory alive at the expense of everything else in his life, including his daughter.  (Who is starving for attention, which harkens back to the heroine’s own backstory.) In withdrawing from the world, the hero has turned a blind eye to the people around him who are in need, especially his young daughter, but also other members of his family.  There is a business that requires his attention, or it’s going to fail.  His friend is in the middle of a legal battle, and the hero is a lawyer.  And since he doesn’t give a darn about anything but his own sorrow, he’s not terribly interested in helping any beggars who ,might show up, especially if the beggar in question is his wife’s best friend from high school.

Obviously my hermit needs to have something my beggar desperately needs (a job perhaps, or money to accomplish some end, or legal advice).  They are going to fight about this for the first third of the book.  (I’d tell you what it is but that might spoil the read.) The bottom line a beggar heroine a hermit hero immediately generate conflict, which is always good for storytelling.  Equally important, I can now brainstorm a list of things that could happen that would either 1) force the hermit to deal with the people around him, or 2) force the beggar to fend for herself and improve her self-esteem, or deal with her residual issues with her mother.  Believe me I have a long, long list of what ifs now — many more than I need to tell a good story.

So, how do you come up with characters who drive your stories?  Since we’re all feverishly writing as part of the Winter Writing Festival, I’m sure that brainstorming ideas would be welcome by all.

Plotting with your Characters

I don’t know about you, but I find plotting to be the most difficult thing about writing fiction.

But now that I write for a living, I’m required to submit a synopsis and/or detailed outline to my publisher well before I ever start a book.  And since my publisher pays me to do this, I have a huge incentive to pre-plot my books.

This being the case, I’ve developed a strategy for coming up with initial plot ideas.  I won’t say this is pain free, it’s not.  But it works for me.  And maybe it will work for you.  Here’s what I do.

I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about my hero and heroine.  I don’t find this painful at all.  Usually my hero is handsome and hot.  He has a wound.  He has a troubled backstory.  Same thing with my heroine.  Since I’m a writer, which is synonymous with voyeur, thinking about my characters’ inner and outer lives is no sweat whatsoever.  Once I’ve gotten to know them I will try to answer two key questions about them:

1)      What does my hero/heroine want more than anything?

2)      What does my hero/heroine need to learn in order to fall in love?

The answer to question 1 is where the external plot line lives.  The answer to this question has to be something other than ‘My heroine want to fall in love.’  Here are some examples of acceptable answers: My heroine wants a family.  She wants a business.  She wants to land that client or that job.  She wants to run away from the bad guys or her parents or her family.

The answer to question 2 is where the love story lives.  Here are some examples of acceptable answers:  The heroine needs to learn how to trust.  She needs to stop trying to control everything.  She needs to learn the power of positive thinking.  She needs to see herself as beautiful.

If I can figure out a link between questions one and two that’s terrific.  But often I can’t.  Also, if I can put the hero and heroine in conflict with these questions that’s a plus, too.  But often I can’t do that either.  And really it’s not necessary at this point.  Just knowing what they want and what they need to learn is the most important part.

Once I have these goals and needs nailed, I take out several pieces of paper and I let my characters brainstorm around three important questions:

1)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out at least ten things that could happen that would make it harder for him/her to reach the story goal, or make the story goal more important than ever.

2)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out at least five things that could happen that would make his/her story goal mean more to the community at large, such as friends, family, community, co-workers, neighbors, the guys at the bar.

3)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out one or two things that could happen that would make his/her story goal so important or difficult that it becomes a life and death situation.

After I’ve gotten these lists I ask my both hero and heroine which of these events or situations would give them an opportunity to practice whatever it is that they need to learn in order to find love.  This inevitably makes my list even bigger and more detailed.

When I’m done with this exercise I’ll have a long list of potential scenes that might not be enough for a full book, but is almost certainly enough for a few turning points, which I will try to assemble into my recipe for a seven paragraph synopsis.

So now comes the fun part.  Today I thought it would be fun to brainstorm a plot using this technique.  Here’s what you need to know about my hero and heroine.  (By the way, this is not a book I’m writing or planning to write, I made up these characters on the fly for this exercise only.)

Hero:  1) Rick wants to quit his job as a CPA and open an Italian restaurant.  He’s the quintessential foodie who yearns to cook for a living, but is afraid to express this to his friends and family.  2) Rick needs to learn not to always play it safe.  He’s spent his life doing the “expected” thing.

Heroine:  1) Suzy wants to lose 50 pounds.  She has always been a big girl and she’s convinced that her “real life” will start once she drops the weight.  2) Suzy needs to learn that real life is right now and you don’t want to miss a minute of it waiting around.

Okay now it’s your turn.  Post comments telling me how Rick and Suzy’s goals are going to be a) difficult to achieve or become even more important to achieve b) become important to their friends, family, and community in either a positive or negative way, c) become an issue of life and death importance.  And don’t worry if the obvious things get listed very quickly.  The really interesting (and funny or emotional) stuff usually doesn’t come out until you’ve jotted down all the obvious (and clichéd) possibilities.

And to add a little spice one lucky commenter will win a copy of Inn at Last Chance, my newest release in the Last Chance series of contemporary, small southern town romances.

Pantsing Your Series

I’m a pantser. I wish I weren’t – I’m so logical and organized in the rest of my life (unless you’re emailing me – all bets are off when it comes to responding to email). Theoretically, I should be just as logical and organized in my plotting. I dream of scenes arranged on index cards, of carefully highlighted plotting notebooks and special research folders.

But that’s not how I write. I make a theoretical plot, then I start writing – then I get to the halfway point of the book, toss it all, and rewrite it again from the beginning. By the end, the book is something I’m proud of, but it’s also completely unrecognizable from my original idea.

With my first two books (Heiress Without a Cause and Scotsmen Prefer Blondes), this process was painful but ultimately bearable (but did I mention painful?). But as my series progresses, I’m learning more about not just how to pants a novel, but how to pants a series. My third book, The Marquess Who Loved Me, came out in February, and as I wrote it I realized how much I have to compensate for my pantsing nature when I’m writing later books in a series.

The cold, brutal fact is this: if you’re pantsing a series, you may have written yourself into unfixable holes.

So what’s a pantser to do? I can’t say I’ll start plotting in advance, but here are some things that work for me:

  • Track the dates of everything that happened in previous books. I use software called Aeon Timeline ($40, Mac only), and I put in key dates from every project – when the hero/heroine meet, where they go, what they’re up to, etc., so that I know where they were if I need to use them as secondary characters in future books. Better, Aeon Timeline allows me to establish when a character was born, and then tells me how old they are on any given future date – so helpful when your book spans a couple of years, so you don’t accidentally leave one character at the same age for two or three years 🙂 I took the time to go back and do this for all three of my books now – I’d rather track it now than get to the twentieth book in my Regency worlds and start reusing minor characters (or, heaven forbid, major characters) because I forgot they existed.
  • Be vague. Be very vague. There are some things you can’t be vague about – hair color and names come to mind. And for secondary characters to feel real and not cardboard-y, they need personalities and preferences. But it’s a lot easier to be concrete about preferences (such as a secondary character preferring lemons instead of sugar in her tea) – you’re not writing yourself into a corner with those. It’s much harder to be concrete about things like how many previous suitors a secondary character has had. If that character becomes a heroine in a future book, you’re stuck with whatever number you gave earlier in the series. I’m now trying to be more vague about personal backstory in early books so I have room to play later.
  • Reread your previous books and focus on scenes featuring those characters. If the hero/heroine in a later book were secondary characters in earlier books, reread those scenes before you start writing. There will always be readers who pick up the tiny facts you miss (like if a character’s hair is a slightly different shade of flaxen). Most people won’t notice that stuff. However, they *will* notice if a secondary character they loved in an earlier book becomes a totally different person in a later book. Rereading early scenes helps you to reset and remember the voices of those characters before you pants them into a completely different voice.

And if all else fails, then maybe this book will be the one that becomes your funny cocktail-party story about how you accidentally turned a character from a virgin spinster to a courtesan. But hopefully, by keeping track of details and staying vague, you can give yourself room to pants a great story without writing yourself into a corner 🙂

How do you plot your series? Do you know what will happen from the first book? Or have you found yourself in a trap of your own making? I’d love to hear how you deal with the later books in your series – thanks for sharing!

String Theory

String Theory? I bet you didn’t know I was actually a budding physicist in disguise? Right. I only wish I understood the ins and outs of String Theory. It makes as much sense to me as the rationale behind ice-hole swimming. Brrr. The thought of it boggles my mind. This post is about something a little different from String Theory in its traditional form. But it does involve string, and it is a theory—kind of.




Interested in playing? Here’s a detailed list of instructions on how to set up the game. I warn you, it’s complicated:

  1. Cut a length of string (or yarn).
  2. Tie the ends together to form a loop.
  3. Weave the loop around your fingers.
  4. Start playing.

See? You might need to read those steps a couple of times until you get the hang of it. Or visit You Tube to see the experts in action.

Now that you’ve set up your game (i.e., your plot), here are some things to consider as you play:

  1. The string remains the same piece of string, no matter how many loops we cross. How does this relate to writing? Our basic story is still there, beneath whatever twists and turns we throw at our characters.
  2. Dropping one thread can make a drastic change. Compare cat’s cradle to Jacob’s ladder. We can get two very different results from the same simple piece of string. Changing one aspect of our plot can make a big difference.
  3. The more complicated we make the pattern, the more care we should take when proceeding to the next step. This applies to plot points as well. When there are lots of crossed threads to deal with, we have to think carefully about our next move. One misstep and everything comes unraveled. But it’s not the end of the world. We still have our thread (the basic story). Just start manipulating those strings all over again.
  4. After so many twists and turns, the pattern begins to repeat itself. In certain versions of the string game, the pattern eventually loops back to the beginning. Know when to wrap up the story. When you first start playing (or writing), it may look like there are an infinite number of combinations, but that can be deceptive. Be careful not to let your plot turn into one big circle, where nothing new happens.
  5. Get a little help from your friends. Yes, we can play the string game on our own (as evidenced by the number of You Tube videos out there). But I always had more fun playing with a friend…or two or three. We Rubies are constantly tossing around plot ideas and asking for help. If you get stuck, find some writing buddies to help you think through the process.
  6. The most important step of all: Have Fun. Play. Write. Have fun with your characters and those twists and turns, because who wants to do something that feels like drudgery? Not me. So go forth and conquer those plots, but have fun while doing it!

So that’s my theory in a nutshell. How about you? Any analogies you’d like to share? Do you like your plots simple or impossibly complicated?

The Seven Paragraph Synopsis

Synopses are evil.  When faced with the prospect of writing one, perfectly competent authors have been known to quake in their boots, hide under the bed, or indulge in M&M binges.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

How To Use Screenwriting Techniques to Plot Your Novel

As much as I’d like to be a plotter, I’m a confirmed pantser. My latest manuscript, ONE NIGHT TO SCANDAL, shows the consequences: I scrapped the first two hundred pages — not once, but twice. I love the finished product (and it finaled in the 2011 Golden Heart, yay), but I would really prefer not to go down that dark road again. So as a pantser, the most nervewracking part of finishing my manuscript wasn’t the edits or the proofreading — it was hearing my agent say that she wanted a synopsis for the next book so that she could pitch it to editors along with my finished baby.

That meant she wanted a synopsis for a book I hadn’t written.

Advanced Planning

One lucky non-Ruby commenter on today’s blog will win an autographed copy of  WELCOME TO LAST CHANCE, coming to bookstores on March 1, 2011.

I recently drove fifty miles to a meeting with one of my critique partners.  We met at a restaurant I had never visited before, so, naturally, I did some advanced planning before setting out:  I plugged the restaurant’s address into my GPS.  I printed out written directions.  I took my cell phone with emergency numbers.  And I fired up my iPod with a  favorite playlist so I wouldn’t get bored during the hour I spent on the road.  

My planning didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the snow-covered landscape along the way, or the veal picata, wine, and friendship awaiting me at journey’s end. 

I write like I travel.  


Giveaway:  One commenter on today’s blog  who is not a Ruby Sister will receive an advance reader copy of my forthcoming novel, Welcome to Last Chance.

Writing romance is hard.  It’s harder than writing other forms of fiction, because to be good at it, an author must juggle two separate plot arcs – the romantic arc and the story arc.  These arcs are related, but they are not the same.   The best romances have a great love story in them, but they also have a great external story as well.

At a recent dinner with my editor and agent, both of whom work mostly with romance authors, I got an earful about their frustrations over submissions that don’t have “enough story in them.”  Based on their comments, it would seem that many romance authors are having issues with the storytelling aspects of romance. 

The Latest Comments

  • Darynda Jones: Love this, April! I could see this for any age. Your protagonist could be a child haunted by a...
  • Darynda Jones: Oooooo, this would make a great opening, Cynthia! Great job!
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