Trying to understand story structure led me down a very long and twisty rabbit hole. My first foray into story structure was a Rachael Stephen’s YouTube video on the Plot Embryo–her favorite method for plotting a novel–which she got from Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, which he simplified from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (Phew!).
Stephen’s plot embryo was simple, graphic and colorful–I liked it! It visually tied in the character’s journey and change: The top and bottom represent the character’s familiar world vs the unfamiliar world the character must journey through, and the left and right sides of the circle represent the character’s stasis and change, respectively.
The circle’s eight spokes (i.e. plot points) each represent a step along the character’s journey: You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, Change.
Stephen explained the structure well, using a good example so it was easy to understand, and she pointed out how the opposite points on the circle represent a certain symmetry in the story; for example, at point one (You) the character is comfortable but ignorant, and at point five (Find) the character is uncomfortable, but (becoming) enlightened.
Another good thing about the plot embryo was how it can be used in multiple ways–Stephen had other videos showing how to use it for a negative story arc and how you can use it to help create a character’s backstory (eeks! That sounds like the beginning of another rabbit hole!)
I may have a brain that takes things too literally (definitely!), but I was having a hard time seeing how some of the points from five onward applied in all story types. So I decided to go to the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and found Harmon’s original blog post about it.
I appreciated that he tried to show the universality of his story circle by telling a very simple story about a guy getting a flat tire. I also appreciated that he would include aspects of multiple stories. Yet, when I went away, I still felt as if I didn’t quite get it. Harmon’s explanation was either not specific enough or it was too specific—I’m not sure which.
As I’ve told my students (I sometimes teach Freshman Comp at a local community college) when trying to get them to understand what a thesis statement is, often you have to hear the same information in lots of different ways before you find the image or wording that resonates with you. So I kept looking for more story structures.
The next story structure I came across was by K.M. Weiland, on her Helping Writers Become Authors website. Her version included a lot more beats; for instance, between the first plot point (at 25%) and the Mid-Point (at 50%), she includes Reaction, the First Pinch Point and Realization.
Seeing how different Weiland’s structure seemed from the one by Stenpen and Harmon, I wondered how they would match up, so I made a mini-sketch of Weiland’s structure and the Plot Embryo combined.
This made me want to see how other structures would fit on the circle, so I drew a new one, then looked for more structures and began adding them–expanding the circumference to accommodate them: I found the YouTube videos “Outline Your Screenplay, Part 1 & 2,” in which Adam Skelter describes his structure which has twenty-four points and four acts.
Then there were a series of videos from a presentation Dan Wells did on what he calls the 7-Point Story Structure. I appreciated this because he showed how you could use the same seven points to plot out different arcs: Action, Character, Romance and Betrayal were a few that he used as an example of how to braid the plots together. I found this to be really helpful because most discussions of story structure fail to address how to blend together subplots with the main plot.
By this point, one of the things I found frustrating in many of the sources I was looking at (and I looked at a lot more than I can list here) was that action/adventure stories were the predominant examples. Movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman Returns, Die Hard and Lord of the Rings all include very distinct examples of the various plot points. For example, using Harmon’s Story Circle, point three is GO, and in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes off world, while Harry Potter goes to wizard school—those are pretty literal examples, so I get why!
But what about quieter stories–character dramas or romance stories–where the characters don’t actually go anywhere?
This was how I came across Michael Hauge—because he used the romantic comedy Hitch as his prime example, and I really appreciated that different perspective.
Looking for more info on how to blend storylines, I came across C.S. Lakin’s post “How to Weave a Subplot into the Structure of Your Novel” on her Live Write Thrive website. Her article gave a general idea of how you could weave together storylines. But she also referred to her version of story structure, which has ten points, so I had to check that out, too!
Then I discovered Janice Hardy’s “How to Plot the Three-Act Structure” on her Fiction University website. And at this point, I realized I ran out of room on my paper. But I also realized I had created a pretty cool, multilayered story structure mash-up!
In doing so, I saw that to a certain extent, all plot structures are the same. Yet there is such variety in how to explain the significance of each point. I think this variety is emblematic of the variety in the finished stories. There may be certain patterns and rhythms shared by all stories, but this internal structure allows for infinite variations in the stories themselves, in how the characters and events get hung on the structure.
What I’ve got now is really useful for my writing. With descriptions for each plot point lined up I can skim down, say Mid-Point, and see all the different versions—moment of truth, disillusionment, makes a decision, point of no return, reversal—until I find one that seems to fit with the story I’m trying to tell.
Uh, oh! I think I’m starting to hear the Character Backstory rabbit hole calling!
Links to sources I referenced are listed here:
Rachael Stephen’s video “my favourite novel plotting method: the plot embryo”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pZ3ZZd1mms
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle: https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit
K.M. Weiland’s Story Structure: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
Adam Skelter’s videos: Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amW7864Lcn4
Dan Wells videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE
C.S. Lakin On Weaving Subplots: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/08/01/how-to-weave-a-subplot-into-the-structure-of-your-novel/
On “The First 10 Scenes You Need to Plot for Your Novel”: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/07/04/the-first-10-scenes-you-need-to-plot-for-your-novel/
Cambell’s Hero’s Journey: Winteriscoming.net
Harmon’s Story Circle: https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_103:_Let%27s_Simplify_Before_Moving_On
Rachael Stephen’s Plot Embryo: screen shot from her video, linked above.