The Plot Embryo for Romance Stories

Dan Harmon, the man behind Community and Rick and Morty, created an explanation of story structure called the Plot Embryo or Story Circle, and it is changing my life. It’s a simpler way of thinking about the Hero’s Journey plot structure, which I’ve always struggled to apply to romance. But the Plot Embryo is simple and general enough to apply to any fiction story, and it connects plot points in a way that combines both the internal and external story arcs—something I haven’t seen done as well in any other explanation of story structure.
 
As soon as I learned about the Plot Embryo, I endeavored to figure out how to incorporate it into the ideas of story structure that already resonate with me, which for romance involves a handful of key scenes that every romance must have, such as the Meet Cute and the HFN/HEA. The Plot Embryo adds to these points, and the halves of the Embryo connect them to the main characters’ internal and external journeys.
 
Below, I will explain the Plot Embryo and how it applies to romance stories.

The Plot Embryo

The Plot Embryo consists of eight points along a circle divided into quadrants. Each point represents a plot point in the story, and the lines going vertically and horizontally through the circle are the divisions between the external and internal story worlds.

The Eight Points

As Dan Harmon explains1, the plot points are as follows:
  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.
He further simplifies2 the points into single words:
  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change
I will admit that the single words aren’t as helpful to me personally as the initial phrases, but they might be a little easier for others to remember.
 
You can see these plot points in almost any story in existence, but I’ll offer “The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf,”3 an Aesop’s fable that you might know better as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” as an example.
 
1. A character is in a zone of comfort, (You)
 
In the first sentence of this very short story, the shepherd boy’s initial situation is revealed: “A Shepherd Boy tended his master’s Sheep near a dark forest not far from the village.”
 
2. But they want something. (Need)
 
The boy suffers from boredom. His need is to get rid of it.
 
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation, (Go)
 
While he’s watching the sheep, the boy thinks of what he would do if he saw a wolf and remembers that his master told him to shout for the villagers to help if a wolf attacked the sheep. Within this story’s small scope, the point at which the idea of the wolf comes up is the beginning of the unfamiliar situation.
 
4. Adapt to it, (Search)
 
This is how the boy reacts to his new situation. He decides that in order to entertain himself and get rid of his boredom, he will pretend there is a wolf. The villagers will come to scare the wolf away only to find that the boy was playing a joke on them.
 
5. Get what they wanted, (Find)
 
The boy plays his trick on the villagers, and this relieves his boredom. He finds the trick so amusing that he plays it a second time.
 
6. Pay a heavy price for it, (Take)
 
But then a wolf really comes to attack the sheep. When the boy yells for the villagers, they assume he is trying to trick them again and don’t come to help. As a result, the wolf kills several of the sheep.
 
7. Then return to their familiar situation, (Return) / 8. Having changed. (Change)
 
Since the fable is so short, these two plot points aren’t actually in the story. But one can assume that the boy will return to his initial situation, his regular life without the wolf, with a new realization. He has learned the lesson presented at the very end of the story: “Liars are not believed even when they speak the truth.

The Eight Plot Points in Romance

In a romance story, the eight plot points on the Plot Embryo represent an arc for at least one of your main characters. If you have more than one point-of-view main character, you might have a fully fleshed-out Plot Embryo for each one with the overall situation being the same.
 
In an earlier post, I discussed the six essential plot points of a romance novel (and one optional plot point). Though they don’t line up perfectly with the Plot Embryo points, they do work well with them. The six essential romance plot points are:
  • Character introduction(s)
  • Meet cute/meet ugly
  • Point of no return
  • Midpoint
  • Darkest moment
  • HFN/HEA
  • Optional epilogue
1. A character is in a zone of comfort, (You) / 2. But they want something. (Need)
 
At the beginning of a romance story, the main character is living their regular life, but something is missing. This is probably true for the other main character/love interest as well.
 
So for every point of view character, you’ll have a scene or two showing that character in their original, pre-Romance situation (I am capitalizing Romance to denote that I am talking about the central romance of the book). It also needs to be suggested or outright shown that something is missing from their lives that the Romance will help them get.
 
For example, they could be single but longing for true love. Or they could have sworn off love but need to deal with past pain in order to be whole.
 
The above info makes up your character introduction(s).
 
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation, (Go) / 4. Adapt to it, (Search)
 
The main character gets swept up into the Romance and reacts to it.
 
The Romance is the unfamiliar situation. It starts with the meet cute/meet ugly, where at least one point-of-view character first sees their love interest in a romantic light. Usually, they have just met, and your character is ogling their love interest’s physique or otherwise admiring their presence. They could also have previously only had a platonic relationship, but something happens to push your character to see them in a romantic and/or sexual way.
 
The lovers react to the meet cute/meet ugly, and what those actions result in is the point of no return, which is when your lovers become linked in such a way that they cannot separate without consequences.
 
The point of no return isn’t necessarily cut and dry. It could be the point at which the lovers have developed feelings for each other and leaving would result in heartbreak. Or it could happen at the same time as the meet cute/meet ugly; for example, in a dubcon romance, one character could have purchased the other as a slave. Or for a lighter example, the characters could have just been hired at the same law firm, and each of them have strong reasons for staying at the firm.
 
5. Get what they wanted, (Find)
 
Your main character gets what they’ve been missing, thanks to the Romance.
 
For example, the character who had sworn off love has spilled their dark past to their new lover and has succeeded in falling in love again, whether they like it or not. Or the character who longed for true love is pretty sure they’ve found it. Your lovers are happy.
 
This point in the Plot Embryo overlaps with the midpoint, where your characters stop merely reacting and start making proactive decisions. They might decide to commit to an exclusive romantic relationship. One of the characters, perhaps the one who had sworn off love, decides to end the relationship. The midpoint is also the halfway point of the story.
 
6. Pay a heavy price for it, (Take)
 
The main character realizes that in order to keep his lover, he must give something up.
 
This is the darkest moment. Your lovers have likely broken up, or an antagonist outside of the Romance has separated them somehow. This is the moment your main character realizes that they have to change (if you have more than one point-of-view character, they may all have to give up something). Your main character is up against the wall with no choice but to admit their fault(s) and take responsibility or lose their love forever.
 
Oftentimes, the darkest moment culminates in one character groveling for the other or otherwise making a grand gesture to win them over. They pay the heavy price because love conquers all.
 
7. Then return to their familiar situation, (Return) / 8. Having changed. (Change)
 
As a result of falling in love and committing to and sacrificing for that love, the main character has changed for the better.
 
This is the HFN/HEA. Your lovers are happy. They are in their regular lives, but they are together now with a bright future ahead. That future is surer in an HEA than an HFN, with the optional epilogue jumping ahead and showing your characters at another happy stage in their relationship.

The External Story Arc

The halves of the circle created by the horizontal dividing line represent two opposing parts of the external story arc. Dan Harmon gives them a variety of names4: order and chaos, life and death, conscious and unconscious.

I prefer conscious versus unconscious because these words have parallels with the mind. One’s conscious mind is more rational and aware, while the unconscious mind is illogical and more unknown.
 
However you prefer to think of these halves of the Embryo, the bottom half is the unfamiliar situation the main character crosses into at plot point three and the situation they leave in plot point seven.
 
Sometimes, the unfamiliar situation is represented by a literal world. Examples of this include:
  • The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the underworld
  • Alice in Wonderland: down the rabbit hole
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Narnia
  • The Wizard of Oz: Oz
  • Harry Potter: the wizarding world
Sometimes, it’s a different situation in the same setting:
  • A Star is Born (2018): musical success/fame
  • Venom (2018): the symbiote having bonded with Eddie Brock

The External Story Arc in Romance

Outside of this blog post, I have previously referred to the Romance as the internal plot of a romance novel and whatever is happening outside of the Romance and affecting it as the external plot, and I still think that is a useful way of thinking of a romance story. But within the Plot Embryo, the Romance becomes the external story arc, with the literal world outside the Romance still informing and affecting the Romance.
 
Really, the Romance is internal because it involves your characters’ inner feelings. But they undergo a change as a result of the Romance, and that is the internal story arc. Your characters undergo changes individually in order to make the Romance work. What is happening outside the romance and affecting and informing the romance is basically a subplot.

At point three of a romance story, the main character gets that first inkling of the Romance and crosses out of their regular life into the romantic relationship portion of the story. At plot point seven, they cross out of the turbulent phase of their romantic relationship and back into their regular life but with their lover. They have gone into the unconscious world and brought back a wonderful gift.

The Internal Story Arc

The halves of the circle created by the vertical dividing line represent two opposing parts of the internal story arc. Dan Harmon doesn’t go into this part of the story arc as deeply, at least not in his original series of posts on the subject4, but Will Schoder5 simplifies these halves as stasis and change.

The main character is resistant to change in the first half of the story and is reacting to their circumstances rather than proactively creating them. But in the second half of the story, after plot point five, they are making decisions, taking actions, and changing inside.

The Internal Story Arc in Romance

The internal change the main character goes through in a romance is from resistance to love to acceptance to love.

The main character might want love in the beginning of the story but is resistant to changing something internally in order to have that love, which in a romance is true commitment. The shifts in the internal arc might be murkier than the shifts in the external arc in that they might not happen at exact points in the story, but around plot point five, the main character will start making proactive decisions about their romantic relationship.

In Conclusion

As you can see, the Plot Embryo or Story Circle applies to every story, including romance ones. In my opinion, it fits romance better than pretty much every other story structure paradigm out there.
 
I hope this post has given you a new way to think about romance stories or further explained the Plot Embryo you’d already heard of.

Need an editor to help make sure your story’s structure is sound? Hire me.

Notes

1. Dan Harmon, “Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit,” Channel 101 Wiki, FANDOM, accessed April 5, 2019, https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit.
 
2. Dan Harmon, “Story Structure 103: Let’s Simplify Before Moving On,” Channel 101 Wiki, FANDOM, accessed April 5, 2019, https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_103:_Let%27s_Simplify_Before_Moving_On.
 
3. Aesop, “The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf,” Aesop’s Fables, Short Kid Stories, accessed April 6, 2019, http://www.shortkidstories.com/story/aesops-fables/#THE_SHEPHERD_BOY_AND_THE_WOLF.
 
4. Dan Harmon, “Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory,” Channel 101 Wiki, FANDOM, accessed April 5, 2019, https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_102:_Pure,_Boring_Theory.
 
5. Will Schoder, “Every Story is the Same,” YouTube, 15:12, November 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuD2Aa0zFiA.

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