Plot by Numbers

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to give credit to Michael Hauge for today’s post.  You can learn more about him and his many talents at

Michael Hauge promotes a Six Stage Plot Structure for screenplays that breaks down a movie not only by stages of development, but by numbers.  Or more specifically, percentages.  It’s this breakdown that I’d like to consider for novels.  For example, in a screenplay:

The first Stage is the SET UP and it gets the first ten percent (10%) of the total length of the movie, or approximately 12 minutes.  The Set Up reveals the protagonist’s life up to now, until presented with an opportunity that begins the story.

The second Stage is the NEW SITUATION, which gets the next fifteen percent (15%) of the total movie or about 18 minutes.  The new situation results in a change of plans when the protagonist’s general desire is transformed into visible outer motivation.

Third, the protagonist makes PROGRESS toward the overall goal for the next twenty-five percent (25%) of the total time (30 minutes).  The protagonist works to achieve the outer motivation and it seems to be working.  The protagonist passes the point of no return and is fully committed.

This leads to Stage Four, which presents COMPICATIONS & HIGHER STAKES for the next thirty minutes (25%).  At this point in the story, the outside world closes in on the protagonist.  The conflict builds until the protagonist suffers a major setback and it seems all is lost.

The protagonist then makes a Stage 5 FINAL PUSH for the next twenty-four percent (24%)of the time, putting everything on the line until the Climax where the hero faces the biggest obstacle and the outer motivation is finally resolved.

The final stage, the AFTERMATH takes up the last one percent (1%), at which point the Credits run and you wonder what the heck a “Best Boy” is and what kind of money they might make.

Now, I know there are some of you that are going to cringe at this.  I know you.  You’re out there, you I’ll-Just-See-Where-My-Characters-Take-Me writers.  I’m awed by your unwaivering faith that your characters will take you somewhere (and not just hunker down for a Grey’s Anatomy marathon).  For others, including me, who think outlining and plotting is where it’s at, Michael’s screenplay formula has got some serious appeal.

Consider the 80,000 word novel.   Breaking it down by percentages,The Set Up would comprise the first 8,000 words.  That sounds about right to me–maybe a little long, but generally in the ballpark. Take 12,000 words to develop the first turning point.  20,000 to make progress. 20,000 for developing the higher stakes, another 19,000 for the climax and then the final 1,000 for denouement.

To me, this is gold but only if I also give myself freedom to break away from the framework when the story requires.

Perhaps what is most helpful with this structure is its guideposts for PACING.  It tells me where I’m going and reminds me when I better pick up the pace and get to a certain destination (turning point) sooner rather than later.  It also suggests when certain sections may require more development if they come up way too short.

And–OF COURSE–always be willing to break the rules!

It’s all a matter of preferences and right brain/ left brain-edness.  If you think it might work for you, give it a shot.


1 Comment

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One response to “Plot by Numbers

  1. While I can understand why writers would instinctively shrink from this — we’re artists! we have to follow our instincts! you can’t DIAGRAM art! — I’m with you. This sounds like a great guideline to have in mind. I’ve also always liked thinking about books in parallel to movies/scripts, because I’m sort of a visual thinker.

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