plot embryo plot points
Learning to use the Plot Embryo is the single greatest thing I’ve ever done for my writing.
— Me, bitch

Um, excuse me, but what the hell is a Plot Embryo?

It's a framework for plotting which you can use to create infinite stories, from heroic epics, to romantic dramas, to poignant tragedies. 

Doesn't look all that mindblowing, does it?

Just wait.

When you start seeing exactly how it works, you'll develop a whole new respect for that simple circle sliced into eight.

The Plot Embryo will help you:

  • Hit those notes which emotionally resonate with your reader
  • Make your stories feel complete and satisfying
  • Help you develop a cohesive story in which all elements work in harmony
  • Consciously create and integrate the theme you want to explore with the story
  • Create effective motive & backstory for your characters, without which the reader won't care about anything which happens to them
  • Shine a light on the wobbly parts of your plot
  • Create a brief, but rock-solid outline from which to draft
  • Outline an entire plot on one page to get that crucial big picture view

Who created it?

Campbell's Monomyth

In 1949, Joseph Campbell developed a unified theory of myth in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Using hundreds of myths and tales from all over the world, he picked out the common thread in all of them. This thread he named the Monomyth. (Also called the Hero's Journey). See more about Campbell's work here.

The Monomyth can be summarised as:

A hero goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

 

Harmon's Heroic Plot Embryo

Many years later, Dan Harmon (creator of Community and Rick & Morty) built upon the foundation of the Monomyth to create the Plot Embryo. (Sometimes called the Story Circle). While Campbell's structure applied largely to mythic heroes, Harmon's version was universalised even further to encompass all kinds of stories beyond the mythic tradition. Dan's own explanation of the Plot Embryo is here.

The Heroic Plot Embryo can be summarised as:

A character needs something, goes and searches for it, finds it but pays a high price, and returns to the familiar changed.

 

Stephen's Tragic Plot Embryo

I fell in love with Harmon's Plot Embryo, but soon realised that there were ultimately two kinds of stories in the world: comedies and tragedies, stories with largely happy endings or largely sad ones. Harmon's Plot Embryo worked great for heroic protagonists, but it didn't work for villains, antagonists or tragic heroes.

So I set about building a model which could work for the other side of the narrative coin, and came up with the Tragic Plot Embryo. If the Heroic Plot Embryo created by Harmon is the sun, the Tragic Plot Embryo is the moon.

The Tragic Plot Embryo can be summarised as:

A character wants something, ventures off to find it, commits terrible deeds in search of it, realises their fatal flaw too late, has their dreams destroyed and ultimately fails.

 


Won't using a structure like this make a story formulaic?

It's my understanding that Campbell's thesis was never 'this is how we should write stories', but 'this is how we do write stories.'

His work was descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So then, who cares if many myths follow this structure? Why is that valuable?

 
Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story?
Why this ritual of descent and return?
Because all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.
— Dan Harmon, master storyteller & lovable asshole
 

A story which doesn't follow some version of this structure isn't necessarily a bad story. It all depends what you as an author want to make the reader feel.

Some writers want to deconstruct structures like the Plot Embryo, and that's cool. Scarlett thomas explores the idea of this deconstruction, of the Storyless Story, in her novel Our Tragic Universe.

But the Plot Embryo is a wonderful starting point if you want to write a story which satisfies readers in the way they expect to be satisfied, while still surprising and delighting them.

It's that 'you have to know the rules before you can break them' adage.

You can still create utterly compelling, inventive, subversive stories within the Plot Embryo. 

If you want to read more on why the Plot Embryo structure resonates so deeply, Dan Harmon goes into details here.


HOW THE HEROIC PLOT EMBRYO WORKS

full plot embryo story structure

Three concentric circles. To use the Plot Embryo, it doesn't really matter which ORDER these circles go in, but this is the order I've found easiest to work with.

Innermost circle

 Internal Quadrants - Define theme of story

Middle circle

External Quadrants - define world of story

Outermost circle:

Eight Plot Points - what happens and when


THE INTERNAL REALM

Innermost Circle

plot embryo internal quadrants
The vertical line divides the internal realms of the protagonist.
These vertical quadrants describe the state of the protagonist at the beginning and the end of the story, coming together to explain the change they undergo.

Every protagonist in a Heroic Plot Embryo must learn or grow in one particular way by the end of the story.

In some sense they must begin ignorant in a particular way, and become enlightened on it.

The two internal quadrants essentially define the theme of the story. If a story is an argument, the protagonist begins with a false belief, and the plot points they go through are what lead them to the truth.

The change can be more on the surface level, skills and power side of things, but stories which truly hit you in the heart are ones with something to say. This is why your theme needs to be more than a single word like 'love' or 'war'.

A theme is a statement about the world. 

So what are you trying to say about the world with your story?


THE EXTERNAL REALM

Middle Circle

The horizontal line divides the external realms of the story.
These are the worlds, environments or situations the protagonist finds themselves in.
The environment through which they will travel over the course of the story.

They begin in a familiar situation, cross into an unfamiliar one, and eventually return.

plot embryo external realm quadrants

 

The world where a character begins needn't be ordinary to US, only to THEM. The Shire is a fantastical place to us, but to the hobbits it's normal, a comfort zone. 

And the external quadrants need not be actual physical places. It is the situation, the circumstances, which must be unfamiliar, not necessarily the physical terrain.

So you might have a protagonist who has lived in the same town all their life, and continues to do so throughout the story, except a new person moves into town.

The new person creates an unfamiliar situation within a familiar environment.


QUADRANT CROSSING POINTS

Plot Embryo

Look at the arrows outside the Plot Embryo. These are the places where your protagonist crosses from one quadrant into another, and it makes them very special.

At plot point 3:

The Protagonist leaves their comfort zone, and crosses into unfamiliar territory.

At plot point 5:

The Protagonist is at the deepest point of the unfamiliar situation, and they cross from an ignorant state into an enlightened one (ie. they adapt to the unfamiliar situation).

At Plot Point 7:

The Protagonist, now changed by their experience in the unfamiliar, cross back into the familiar situation.


THE PLOT POINTS

Outermost Circle

 
plot embryo plot points
 

1. YOU

We establish the protagonist in a zone of comfort. Their backstory goes here too, ie. the event or events in their life which gave them the form of ignorance in the right internal quadrant.
 

2. NEED

They're in a zone of comfort or familiarity, but now they want something. Something happens which means they can't comfortably stay where they are. Their Motive Goal is established here, and it's something they can't find in the familiar.

 

3. GO

cross from familiar > unfamiliar

The Protagonist is forced to leave the familiar to seek their Motive Goal, so they cross into the unknown, the unfamiliar situation. This might be leaving home for a journey, or simply a first day at a new job.

 

4. SEARCH

The Protagonist stumbles around in the unfamiliar situation getting their ass kicked while they seek their Motive Goal. Their ignorance holds them back. They try to deal with the unfamiliar situation the way they've always dealt with things in their comfort zone, but that won't cut it here. They go through Some Shit.

 

5. FIND

cross from ignorance > enlightenment

Also known as 'Meeting the Goddess', because it includes a transcendant, game-changing moment for the protagonist. They find or achieve their Motive Goal (what they wanted in 2. Need) and are faced with a choice. Events in this plot point are what cause the Protagonist to become enlightened, they learn, change or are forced to grow here. It's a point of revelation and vulnerability. They make their choice, and the rest of the story will be about how they deal with the consequences.

 

6. TAKE

They found what they wanted, now they take it and pay a high price for it. This is the 'all is lost' moment, when they 'meet their maker.' They can't just have their Motive Goal without any sacrifice, and they pay that cost here. The antagonist is strongest here. But the character has become enlightened now and is active instead of reactive

 

7. RETURN

cross from unfamiliar > familiar

Bring it home. The character might escape if the unfamiliar situation is a dangerous world, or simply come back into contact with some element of their familiar comfort zone from 1. You.

 

8. CHANGE

The Protagonist is back in the familiar, but they've changed and the change is clear in the context of their old comfort zone. Now they're 'master of both worlds', able to navigate the familiar and the previously-unknown unfamiliar world. Now they've changed they have the power to change the status quo in the familiar world for the better.


SYMMETRY

One of the most helpful things i've found to look at when creating a Plot Embryo is symmetry.

There's a reason the Plot Embryo is a circle, and if you look deeper, you'll find that the plot points mirror each other. This is how wonderful narrative reversals work.

 
plot embryo symmetry you vs find
 

One Vs Five

  • At One the Protagonist is comfortable in their ignorance
  • At Five the Protagonist is uncomfortable but becoming enlightened
 
plot embryo symmetry need vs take
 

Two vs Six

  • At Two the Protagonist wants something but doesn't have it. It might be a dream or wish.
  • At Six the Protagonist finds out the true cost of what they wanted, and pays the price. 'Be careful what you wish for.'
 
plot embryo symmetry go vs return
 

Three Vs Seven

  • At Three the Protagonist enters the unknown as an ignorant person
  • At Seven they return to the familiar, now enlightened.

 

 
plot embryo symmetry search vs change
 

Four Vs Eight

  • At Four the Protagonist is being forced to adapt to an unfamiliar situation. They are punished for their ignorance, it holds them back and gets them into trouble.
  • At Eight they can use their enlightenment to bring about good in the 'ordinary' realm, to change the status quo of their comfort zone for the better. Their enlightenment pays off.

Want to get started plotting with the Heroic Plot Embryo?

This video will give you some practical tips for getting started using the Heroic Plot Embryo for yourself.

 I use the Plot Embryo for every single story and subplot I write, so I created a Printable Template to save us time setting up blank ones.

 
 

THE TRAGIC PLOT EMBRYO

tragic plot embryo story structure

The Heroic Plot Embryo can be a great basis for a huge range of stories, from subtle, realistic or bittersweet endings to the classically heroic marriage ending.

But what about the other side of the spectrum? From the merely disappointing to the downright tragic?

That's where the Tragic Plot Embryo comes in. The Tragic Plot Embryo applies for any character who doesn't get a mostly-happy ending. That might be a tragic hero, or it might be the villain or antagonist of a traditionally Heroic story.

After all, the only difference between a hero and a villain is they want conflicting goals, one succeeds and the other fails.

  • In a Comedy (in the Shakespearean meaning of the word) the Protagonist succeeds and the Antagonist fails.
  • In a Tragedy, the Protagonist fails and the Antagonist succeeds.

All the rest is gravy. Your Protagonist doesn't have to be what we'd consider 'heroic' to still get a happy ending in a Heroic Plot Embryo, and your Protagonist doesn't have be evil or villainous to get a sad ending in a Tragic Embryo.

So you can see, every plot has two sides, it just depends on which perspective you look on it from.

(It's worth noting that your Antagonist can be something other than a person, it might be a force of nature, a group of people or organisation, as long as it sits at the root of why the Protagonist has to fight to succeed, it can be an Antagonist. For the sake of simplicity though, we'll start by using examples of single human characters for the Tragic Plot Embryo).
 


HOW THE TRAGIC PLOT EMBRYO WORKS

11.png

Three concentric circles make up the Tragic Plot Embryo. You'll notice that the Plot Points Return and Change, the ones which create a happy ending, have been cut away.

Innermost circle

 Internal Quadrants - Define theme of story

Middle circle

External Quadrants - Define world of story

Outermost circle:

Eight Plot Points - Define scenes, what happens and when


INTERNAL REALM

Innermost Circle

Tragic plot Embryo internal realm quadrants
The vertical line divides the internal realms of the protagonist.
These vertical quadrants describe the state of the protagonist at the beginning and the end of the story, coming together to explain the change they undergo.

Removing the Plot Points Return and Change (ie. the happy ending) also removes half of the internal 'enlightenment' quadrant.

So they still change a little, but it won’t be the transformative change of a heroic character. They won't change enough to push through the trials of the unfamiliar realm and return to the familiar with the 'elixir' of their motive goal in tow.

You need not name the Plot Points and Quadrants in a Tragic Plot Embryo differently from the Heroic one, but I personally choose to do so to differentiate it in my mind.

Fatal Flaw

The ignorant state on the right can be called the Fatal Flaw. In the same way as the Heroic Plot Embryo, this is the particular state of the Protagonist which will be changed by the journey of the story. 'Fatal flaw' works better for the Tragic Plot for me, because it implies the root of downfall, not something the character will ultimately overcome.

The Fatal Flaw can be a dysfunctional personality, twisted worldview and is almost always a False Belief. If this is the plot of an Antagonist or Villain, the false belief will directly conflict with the enlightened belief that the hero will come to accept. It is the thesis you are trying to prove wrong. 

Insufficient Realisation

A character who never shows any glimmer of hope, who is remorselessly evil or has zero self awareness is not tragic. Tragedy comes from knowing that in another life, things might not have ended so badly.

The Protagonist of a Tragic Plot Embryo will gain some understanding of how their fatal flaw has caused their downfall, but only after it's too late to stop it. And the change they will undergo will never be enough to make up for what they've done


EXTERNAL REALM

Middle Circle

The quadrants of the external realm are exactly the same as in the Heroic Plot Embryo.

The horizontal line divides the external realms of the story.
These are the worlds, environments or situations the protagonist finds themselves in.
The environment through which they will travel over the course of the story.

They begin in a familiar situation, cross into an unfamiliar one, and eventually return.

tragic plot embryo external realm quadrants

THE PLOT POINTS

Outermost Circle

 
tragic plot embryo plot points
 


The plot points for the Tragic Embryo can easily be named the same as the Heroic Plot Embryo (you, need, go, search, find, take).

However, I find it useful to use different names to remind myself that this is a Tragic Plot and is different.

 

1. YOU

BACKSTORY / STAKES

  • Who was the character before they went really bad?
  • What made them who they are?
  • What kind of life have they had which has led to them having the Fatal Flaw in the right quadrant?
  • What taught them that violence is the best way to get what they want, or that muggles aren’t as good as wizards?

Like the hero, they’re in a zone of comfort here.

 

2. ANTICIPATION

NEED / MOTIVE


But then they want something. Magical powers, the power of money, to be loved, to be respected, to become the King of Hell. To save the one they love. Something happens to disturb their zone of comfort. It’s important to get specific here. WHY they want the thing they want must be informed by their backstory. If your character wants money, you have to show in their backstory WHY. What would they spend it on? What matters to them? Why does this matter to them? A simple way to do this is to ask why and who.

  • Magical powers (to do what?)
  • Money (to spend on what?)
  • To be loved (by who?)
  • To be respected (by who?)
  • To become the King of Hell (because…)

This is where you want to build empathy for the character, even if you’re later going to rip it all away. This is where an antagonist should be most relatable, we should care about what they want and why they want it even if it’s not something WE could ever imagine wanting. If you don’t get the reader rooting for them here, it’s not going to have that emotional punch when they lose it all, make those mistakes and ultimately pay for them.

There’s a spectrum of tragedy from the mostly-good-but-made-a-big-mistake to the mostly-evil-but-with-one-redeeming-quality. Whether or not you sprinkle in relatable or likeable moments for them elsewhere, they MUST have one here.

 

3. DREAM

GO


They set off in search of their goal. If they end up truly evil, this is where they set off down that path. You can have them do something that throws up a red flag, or makes you/the reader slightly uneasy at this point. The character is so focused on what they want, that they do something less than heroic to try and get it.

 

4. FRUSTRATION

SEARCH


They encounter real obstacles. If this is the plot of your main antagonist, rather than a standalone tragic story, this is where they clash with the hero. Those meddling kids mess up their plan. The character will be forced to take serious action to stay on track - and will commit dark acts from which there’s no going back.

This is where their fatal flaw will manifest most strongly. You should want them to get what they want, but find their tactics unforgivable. Again, depending on where the character falls on the misguided-to-evil spectrum, they might do bad things at lots of other points, but they MUST do one here, and it must be the biggest and most pivotal.

5. NIGHTMARE

FIND


The character’s plan unravels and opposing forces (which may be your heroes) close in, rendering them paranoid and desperate. They may get what they want but realise they can’t enjoy it because of everything awful they did to get here.

Meeting the Goddess will make them see their fatal flaw in a new light, but it won’t have the transformative effect it has on a hero. It may appear as a redemptive flicker of humanity, but it won’t be strong enough to save them.

When a the Protagonist of a Heroic Embryo 'meets the goddess' a new enlightened path lights up, when the Protagonist of a Tragic Plot Embryo 'meets the goddess' it's like 'oh shit, I was wrong and now I've ruined everything and there's no going back."

 

6. DOWNFALL

TAKE


The price of achieving their goal is too high, but they pay it anyway. They get the opposite of what they wanted.

Their downfall could mean death, but it can also just mean the destruction of their dream. You should pity them.

If they wanted money, they end up poor. If they wanted power, they end up powerless.. They lose, at their own hand or at the hands of enemies (who may be your heroes).

Their story ends here. They can’t escape the consequences of their actions (especially at 4) to leave the unfamiliar realm, return and change, and so they are trapped with their failure.


Hoo, boy! That was a lot, huh?

Don't worry if you feel a little overwhelmed, you don't have to grasp everything right away to get value out of this stuff. 

The Plot Embryo can take a little practise to get the hang of, but once you do, it pays off a hundred times over for how much easier it is to plot cohesive, emotionally resonant stories.

Give it a shot!

Use the hashtag #plotembryo on social media to share how you're getting on and see how other people are using it.

I hope you find it as revolutionary for your writing as I did.

rachael stephen signature
 

THE PRINTABLE TEMPLATE

I use the Plot Embryo for every story, plot and subplot I write, and it has given me the tools to create stories readers fall in love with (just ask my betas!)

It's not difficult to draw up a blank Plot Embryo on a sheet of paper, but it is time consuming, which is why I created a Printable Template.

It includes re-usable templates for both the Heroic and Tragic Plot Embryos.


Further Viewing and Reading

Just can't get enough? Or want to dig a bit deeper and get some more detail, examples and specifics?

This video explains the complete Heroic Plot Embryo, and gives practical tips on how to use it for your own plotting.

This video goes into detail on Plot Point One, You, which is crucial for getting the reader to care about what happens to the Protagonist throughout the whole story.

This video explains the complete Tragic Plot Embryo, and gives a full breakdown of Darth Vader's plot.

This video answers some FAQs about the Plot Embryo, and details how to integrate it with the outlining system in How To Build a Novel.