This morning on my Saturday Sprints writing livestream, I showed off a new plotting method I’m using to plot out Secret Project. A couple of people watching expressed interest in knowing more, so I spent the rest of the sprint working on making a blank template, copying it, and then filling it out to show people how it works.
I cannot take credit for any of this. This is an amalgamation of cool stuff other, much cooler writers have done. The biggest influences on my writing and the ideas that underlie this come from:
Disclaimer: I have not yet checked out Dan Harmon’s work in the original, and my memories of reading Joseph Campbell for university are fuzzy, but I have a fairly good second hand knowledge of what they’re about.
Racheal Stephens: adapted the plot embryo into a form that makes a lot of sense and expanded it for tragic endings: https://youtu.be/_pZ3ZZd1mms
For more info, Racheal has a free course about using the plot embryo that you can find on her website: https://www.rachaelstephen.com/
Underpinning everything is the understanding of character arc and overall structure that I learned from a Michael Hauge workshop I attended. Looking on Michael’s website, I think the course is closest to his The Hero’s Two Journeys video.
Basically, I start with a piece of paper that looks like a startled reptilian—or maybe a prehistoric armoured bird. The page is split into two halves, one for each of my main characters is whatever story I’m working on. In a romance, this would be the MC (main character) and the LI (love interest). In a mystery or thriller, it could be the detective and the antagonist. One is always your main character, but who gets the second embryo depends on what genre you’re writing in, and who, besides your main character, has the most growth and stakes over the course of the story.
Before you use the plot embryo, you need to have thought about the premise and genre of your story. For example, a story with the premise of a man who is afraid of snakes meeting and falling in love with an Australian zookeeper with an emotional support snake that helps him get past his otherwise crippling anxiety will be a romance. From the premise, you can tell that I have already thought about the characters in this story—Jake, the main character, Steve the love interest and Missy, the emotional support snake. I have an idea of what these characters want, what is holding them back, and how this story is going to end: a HEA. The plot embryo is a map to help us figure out how we get from A to The End. The banner in the top centre is for your title, if you know it, and the boxes in the top right and left corners are for the characters each embryo is for.
We start at the centre and work out. I like having the plot embryos on the same page because I find that they play into each other. Since I didn’t do a double embryo for Jake and Steve, you’ll have to take my word for it—or try it out for yourself.
The circle in the middle of the embryo is in two halves, left and right. The right side contains the lie that the character believes. For example, Jake is terrified of snakes. He believes that all snakes are bad. The left side is the truth that Jake needs to come into his own as a man who is able to look past his fear and love snakes—and Steve, the snake obsessed zookeeper that steals his heart. The truth that Jake needs to learn is that not all snakes are scary. Michael Hauge really nails the importance of a character’s lie versus their essence.
The next layer of the circle is split top and bottom. The top represents the familiar. Rachael Stephens does a great job of describing this, but basically, this could be a physical location or a state of mind. Rachael used Darth Vader as an example, and had the top half as Jedi, and the bottom half as Sith/The Dark Side. For my snake romance, I’ve had the top half as Ireland—where snake phobic Jake lives—and Australia as the bottom half, so he will physically travel outside his comfort zone.
Before we get into all the little rays shooting out of circles, I want to call your attention to the fact that the embryo is divided neatly into four parts. Each of these parts represents an act within the three act structure. Starting at 12:00, we have Act 1, moving into Act 2-A at 3:00, Act 2-B at 6:00 and Act 3 at 9:00.
These acts are really good for structure—basically ensuring that your pace is moving along appropriately, and you’re hitting the right emotional beats. Act 1 and 3 can be anything from 10-25% of your word count, but whatever length they are, it is important that they are roughly the same size, and that they are not more than 25%—otherwise your beginning goes on and on and your reader puts your book down before they get to the action, or your end drags out and there isn’t any tension. Acts 2A and 2B should be the same size as each other again, and you want 6:00—the mirror moment—to hit the middle of your story.
This is a major point in the story, where the character abandons their lie and accepts the truth. From here on out, they are moving into their full potential as the person they are truly meant to be (assuming you’re writing a character with an arc that ends positively. Otherwise check out Racheal Stephen’s tragic embryo). When it is in the middle, it feels right. It resonates with the reader more because they’ve been through the struggle to get there, and they’re rooting for the characters success the rest of the journey. To learn more about why this is such a big deal, read Write Your Novel from the Middle and also get a sneak peek at the beats we’re about to work on.
Each of the rays surrounding the circle are where you can write a specific plot beat. These beats I have adapted over the years from James Scott Bell, and most recently Kate Hall. The numbers in the outermost ring of my circle indicate the order that I recommend tackling them, again taken from Kate Hall. Don’t get too hung up on this however—often when I decide on one of these, another falls into place, so I do not stick to this order when making plot decisions. I’ve used JSB of KH to indicate whether the beat is more closely adapted from James Scott Bell or Kate Hall.
Kate Hall advocates figuring out your big, climatic moments first, those that really get to the heart of your character and their struggle. Basically, in order:
1. Mirror moment (JSB): Character has a moment of lightning like clarity where they realise what is at stake if they fail to free themselves of the lie. Jake calls out of a date with Steve because he is so freaked out by Missy. He looks at himself in the mirror, sweaty and pale and gross, and realises that if he doesn’t do something about his fear, he will lose the respect of the man he has fallen hard for.
2. Doorway of No Return #2 (JSB but also Michael Hauge): Character takes big, irrevocable action, either committing to final battle with big bad, or giving up and saying it’s all too difficult. The character retreats into the lie. Character leaves the unfamiliar world and retreats to the known.
Jake breaks up with Stever and gets on a plane back to Ireland. He is done with snakes—and Australians—for ever.
3. Final Battle (JSB and KH and MH—also called the Climax): Character embraces the truth and their essence, and reaches their full potential in confrontation with the opposing force of the story. In romance, this would be the grand gesture—see Gwen Hayes for romance specific beats.
Jake rushes back to the airport to get the next plane to Australia only to find that Steve has followed him—and Missy has escaped from her cage. Irish animal control, completely unused to snakes are preparing to catch and destroy her. Jake summons his courage, picks up Missy, calms her and returns her to Steve. He is hailed a hero.
4. Doorway of No Return #1 (JSB, MH): character commits to a plan of action that will remove them from their familiar world and put them in the unknown. They will have a goal in doing this, but this goal is usually a false goal—what they want, not what they need.
Jake agrees to take part on a Reality TV show about facing fears, shot in Australia. He boards a plane, prepared to face his fears—but also meet Steve for the first time.
5: Opening Disturbance (JSB) Hero is going about their daily life, when something goes wrong—an inkling of the conflict that is to come.
Jake’s friends prank him by hiding fake snakes around his apartment. When he freaks out and kicks them out, the video they recorded of the prank goes viral. Jake is humiliated.
6: Argument Against Transformation: the character states the lie firmly, and argues their case for it. A good moment to hint at whatever wound caused them to adopt this lie.
Jake is invited onto a TV talkshow to talk about his snake phobia with snake-expert Steve joining remotely from Australia. Steve is passionate that his snake therapy can cure anyone’s fears. Jake argues that fearing snakes is natural and that his friends over stepped and that anyone would react badly to an apartment of fake snakes. There is absolutely no way he will ever like a snake.
7: Obstacle #3 (KH — the number might not match hers. Basically, this is the third of my obstacles, the biggest one so far). An event that really challenges the main character. They are moving steadily towards their essence, and using their truth to tackle the problem.
Jake discovers that to win the challenge and his prize money, he must strip down to his boxes and let snakes crawl on him for ten minutes. He practices this with Steve and Missy and manages to get comfortable with touching Missy. Also Steve is shirtless and that’s really nice.
8: Disaster (KH): Another obstacle—and this time, despite accepting the truth, the character fails spectacularly.
The actual snake pit test. Jake is rocking it, until the producers add more snakes he didn’t know about. Jake freaks out and throws the challenge. He’s angry and betrayed—Steve knew and didn’t warn him!
9: Light’s Out (JSB, MH): The character’s lowest point. They realise exactly what they’ve lost and, now that they experienced life with truth, they cannot be satisfied with the lie they were living before. Alexa play Despacito.
Back in Ireland, Jake is moping in his snake-free apartment. It is cold—unlike Australia—and there is a big lack of hot reptile handlers around. He is mourning the loss of the first person to believe he was more than his fear, and everything that could have been.
10: The Q factor (JSB). Named for Q from the James Bond franchise, the main character has a lightning bolt moment. Using knowledge or skills they learned during the course of the story (the pet the dog, or obstacles are a good place to gain this info), they realise there is a solution to their problem.
Alone in his apartment, Jake triggers an overlooked prank snake. He doesn’t even jump. He realises that he is no longer afraid of all snakes. Maybe he’s brave enough for a relationship with Steve after all!
11: Pet the Dog (JSB— also Save the Cat from the Save the Cat method). At a moment of big emotional turmoil and overwhelm, main character does something selfless for someone else. It does not have to be a literal cat or dog.
Jake realises that Steve, held up by the TV crew, hasn’t fed Missy. Despite his fear of her, he drops food into her cage for her.
12: Care Package (JSB)/Beginning (KH). Basically, the main character in their everyday life, with the people that matter to them, doing their usual daily life stuff. A good way to show that no matter how great they think they’re doing, their lie is preventing them from truly being happy.
Jake is alone in his apartment, watching the viral footage of his freakout. He gets a call from his therapist or shut in sister who has not left their childhood home since she was 15 because of her fears. Jake consoles himself with work, but it doesn’t satisfy him.
13. Transformation (JSB, MH). Main character is living fully in their essence, and has achieved what they need to be happy (assuming positive outcome/HEA)—or near enough (HFN). Bonus points if their transformation had a ripple effect on their world.
Jake and Steve are happy celebrating their reunion at the reptile sanctuary. After the airport footage went viral, a gofundme was started for Steve’s reptile sanctuary, and they raised a huge amount. The TV show donated the money Jake would have made to it, so they’ve saved the rare snake Steve is obsessed with and overcome their fears to have a happy life together. Jake’s got a snake of his own, so that Missy has company when Steve—who no longer needs his support snake at all times—goes out with Jake.
14: Kick in the Shins (JSB): Arriving in the unfamiliar world, character is initially overwhelmed by how strange everything is. They make false steps and suffer a setback.
Jake arrives in Australia and the TV crew greet him with a fake snake. He realises they don’t care about him overcoming his fear. They want good television, and him freaking out is apparently good ratings.
15: Obstacle #1 (KH): main character encounters an obstacle. In the process of overcoming it, they begin to chip away at the lie and glimpse the truth.
Steve shows up and is kind and understanding—also super hot. But also with him is his emotional support snake, Missy. Jake is too freaked out to approach Steve at first but, as Steve strokes her and talks about how beautiful she is and how she helped him overcome his fear, Jake is coaxed into coming closer and touching her.
16: Obstacle #2 (KH): Main character faces a bigger obstacle, requiring even more of them and leading them closer to their truth.
Jake and Steve spent a steamy night together in Steve’s apartment. Jake needs to get up during the night, but Missy is stretched out across the floor between him and the bathroom. Jake will have to walk past her alone.
I’ve put my blank template (it’s hand drawn so apologies for the wonkiness), and a version with explanation and example in pdf format. Let me know if you’ve got any questions or want more detail about anything—I am happy to answer them.
Empowering gaslamp fantasy that confounds expectations
Gillian St. Kevern
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