How to use the Plot Embryo to take a HUGE shortcut through the How to Build a Novel system

You know, the thing about writing is that if you keep doing it, you learn things.

Writing (and royally fucking up and figuring out how to fix) North of the End taught me a huge amount, and most of what I learned became the process I map out in my How to Build a Story video series and How to Build a Novel book (abbreviated from here as HTBN). (It’s the same system, but I changed the name for the book. I know, it’s confusing. Sorry.)

And then I found the Plot Embryo. And my whole idea of story structure changed again.

There’s definitely some overlap between the Plot Embryo technique and HTBN, there are parts which fit fairly seamlessly, but there are also parts which… don’t. Where I’m at right now, if there’s a conflict I’d choose the Plot Embryo’s side over HTBN, but your mileage may vary.

In any case, it’s not immediately obvious how to integrate the Plot Embryo with the various HTBN techniques, so I thought I’d share an example of a step-by-step workflow for doing that.

This is me trying to remember / structure the process I went through to completely re-plot North of the End after I discovered the Plot Embryo, and integrate it as if you hadn’t already gone through the HTBN system.

I’m not going to lie, it was a lot of damn work and has meant a lot of rewriting. Which is hard and tiring. But my book is so much better for it, I don’t regret any of it. However, if I had done this from the beginning, I would have saved myself a lot of work. That's why I recommend you take the shortcut.


Steps 1-6 will be different depending on if you’re using these techniques for a brand new story, or to overhaul a WIP, but from 7 onwards they’ll be the same. Let’s dive in.

 

IF IT’S A BRAND NEW STORY…

1. Set up a blank Plot Embryo.

2. Set up a new Motive brainstorming page for your main character or character group.

3. Pull out any existing ideas, characters, themes etc you have and have them in front of you. Refer to them for subsequent steps.

4. Start scribbling options for the embryo quadrants and character motives in pencil. (If plot points occur to you, throw them in, but focus on the internal and external change first) BROAD STROKES HERE.

5. When you find EITHER a motive or a set of plot quadrants you like, use that to extrapolate the other one.

6. Do whatever you gotta do to create all the plot points and complete your Plot Embryo.

 

IF IT’S A WORK IN PROGRESS…

1. Write down every existing plot point you already have in a list, whether you’ve written or just outlined it. (If you’re not sure what counts as a plot point, think of this as trying to distill the story into as few bullet points as possible. Anything big which moves the story forward/changes something drastically is a plot point)

2. It’s okay if they’re not in order or you haven’t figured out the order.

3. If you’ve done brainstorming which hasn’t yet BECOME an outline, start a list of Possible Plot Points on a seperate piece of paper.

4. Start plugging your existing plot points into the plot embryo IN PENCIL. There will probably be gaps, and things which need to be moved somewhere else, and things left over which don’t seem to fit anywhere.

5. Look at the partial plot embryo and try to figure out the quadrants internal/external realms.

6. Do whatever you gotta do to complete your plot embryo. (If it has to change a lot from what you HAVE to what you WANT it to be, do it. This has to be the embryo for the story you WANT to tell, not the one you DID tell.)

 

FROM THERE:

8. Use the HTBN magic questions where necessary to generate or flesh out missing plot points. Very roughly, Motive questions should help with YOU and NEED, Conflict questions with GO, SEARCH, FIND, TAKE, RETURN and Effect questions with FIND, TAKE, RETURN, CHANGE.

9. Write a scene card for each plot point. Each plot point may need multiple scenes, and there may be scenes of ‘connective tissue’ required in between. Write these out too.

10. Pick a short name for this plot, whether it’s the main plot or a subplot or something in between. Pick a colour for it. Write the plot name in the bottom right corner of every card.

11. Next to that write which plot point this card is ie. 1: you, 4: search etc. (You may have multiple cards for the same plot point, remember.)

12. Repeat process for any other plots in the novel.

13. When you have all the cards for all the plots, start putting them together into a final order.

14. Number the cards in the top right corner. This is the scene number.

 

And… look! You’ve created all your plot embryos and translated them into a handy outline format! Now take a seat, have a drink, take a day off pal.

Let me know how this workflow works for you if you give it a go!

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