Michael Hauge is a script consultant and author. His book Writing Screenplays That Sell has been in print for over 20 years. He’s also collaborated with Christopher Volger, author of The Writer’s Journey.
Hague’s plot diagram follows both the outer and inner journey of the character. He also divides the story into three acts with Act Two having a mid-point break.
I’m going to use James Cameron’s Avatar as an example of this plot structure. SPOILERS AHEAD!
In Act One, the story is set-up and a new situation is introduced. Jake Scully, the story’s hero, is a disabled vet. When his twin brother is killed, Jake is offered the job of piloting his twin’s avatar, which plunges Jake into a new situation on the world of Pandora.
As it relates to Jake’s inner journey, he is living fully in what Hauge calls The Identity. The Identity is the emotional armor a character wears to protect him or herself from some wound, whether emotional or physical.
In Jake’s case, his identity is to do as he’s ordered and to operate as the former soldier he still sees himself as despite his disability. The other soldiers look down on him and don’t consider him one of them, especially since, according to Jake, they’re only on Pandora for the money.
The Essence is who the character is when that emotional armor is stripped away In Jake’s case, deep inside he wants to be a hero, a warrior who yearns for something truly worthwhile to fight for. He doesn’t want to fight just for money. He wants something more.
In Act One the character also gets a glimpse of what they could be if he or she were living fully in their Essence. In this case, Jake’s avatar, the alien body he will pilot using his mind, is a glimpse of who and what Jake will become over the course of the story’s journey.
In Act One, there are also two Turning Points. Turning Point One is the Opportunity. In Avatar, it’s the offer made to Jake to start a new life on Pandora. The second Turning Point, Change of Plans, is the Turning Point that pulls the character into Act Two. In Avatar, the second Turning Point for Jake is when he is separated from the other scientists and soldiers and winds up being found by Neytiri.
Not only is Jake now firmly in Act Two but he’s also in a different world, the world of the Na’vi or what Campbell and Vogler call the Special World.
In Act Two, as it relates to the Outer Plot, Jake is making progress on his goal to learn more about the Na’vi. But as it relates to the Inner Journey, Jake is still operating from his Identity as a soldier. He’s been ordered by the story’s antagonist, Quaritch, to obtain military intel on the Na’vi so Quaritch can force them to comply with the company’s desire to mine on their land,
However, one of the functions of Act Two is to move the character along both the Outer and the Inner journeys. As it relates to the Outer Journey, the hero faces more complications and higher stakes in achieving his goals. As for the Inner Journey, the character wavers between the Identity and the Essence.
This is illustrated when we see Jake switch back and forth from his disabled human body to his strong, powerful Na’vi body. He’s also becoming more and more like the Na’Vi and, at the midpoint of the story, or as it’s called the Point of No Return, Jake not only becomes a member of the Na’vi, or the People as they call themselves, but he and Neytiri make love and she tells him they are mated for life.
Jake is now in the second half of Act II, the stage known as Complications & Higher Stakes. We see this when the company invades the grove where Jake and Neytiri made love and destroys a sacred tree. We also see that Jake is fully committed to his Essence, his warrior Na’vi self, when he attacks the soldiers and bulldozers. He’s crossed a line of no return here. He’s made his choice and he’s choosing the Na’vi over the company and his fellow soldiers, although at this point Jake still hopes to find a way for the two to live together.
The Midpoint was Turning Point 3. Turning Point 4 is known as the Major Setback and it’s the point that also turns the story from Act Two into Act Three.
When Jake tries to warn the Na’vi that their home is about to be destroyed, they find out that he was essentially nothing but a spy, gathering intel for the humans. Jake tries to tell them that over time he came to love not only Neytiri but the Na’vi people, but they reject him and cast him out. Jake now has nothing and is nothing, neither a part of human society or the Na’vi. It’s his dark night of the soul, the Black Moment, and he literally wanders alone in the wilderness.
At this point, the hero may be tempted to retreat back to his Identity. If this happens, the story turns out to be a tragedy. But Jake does not do this. He chooses to become more fully Na’vi and even more of his Essence by taming a Toruk, a dragon-like predator both feared and honored by the Na’vi. By taming the Toruk, Jake regains the trust of the Na’vi, including his beloved, Neytiri. He rallies the Na’vi for battle and we are now fully in Act Three.
There are two major stages in Act Three: The Final Push and the Aftermath. There is also one final Turning Point, the Climax.
In Act Three of Avatar the humans are planning one final battle to utterly destroy the Na’vi. In response, Jake organizes all the tribes of the Na’Vi to fight the humans.
In the climax, the hero and the villain usually come together for one final, decisive confrontation. This happens when Quaritch attempts to defeat Jake by killing his human body and incapacitating his avatar. However, Quaritch is killed and the humans that had wanted to despoil Pandora and destroy the Na’vi are defeated and forced to return to Earth.
The Aftermath not only resolves the story questions but shows the transformation of the main character from Identity to Essence.
In Jake’s case, he not only literally forsakes his human body, which represented his Identity, but his consciousness is transferred permanently from that body to his Na’vi avatar body, the symbol of his Essence.
You don’t have to worry that following Hauge’s structure will cause you to write a NaNo novel like Avatar. Keep in mind that story structure is like a cup. You can pour coffee, milk, water, wine, hot chocolate, etc in it. Structure is nothing more than a skeleton upon which you flesh out all kinds of stories; mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romances, literary, etc. each one as unique and individual as you are but supported by a strong structure that will keep your story from meandering or falling apart.