Monday, September 26, 2011

Dan Harmon's Plot Embryo

I've been obsessing about story structure lately. So I was glad to find, in this month's Wired magazine, a piece about Dan Harmon, the 38-year-old creator of the cult-sitcom Community. Harmon has invented plot circles, which he calls "embryos;" they share some similarities to the plot clocks Joyce Sweeney and Jamie Morris have come up with. I actually prefer the Sweeney/Morris version, but I think Harmon's vision is a useful one too. Harmon says this story structure is so "tattooed on his brain" that he can't not see it when he watches a movie, hears a song, or reads a book. Here's the breakdown on how it works:

1. The character is in her comfort zone when the story opens.
2. We learn she wants something.
3.She lands in an unfamiliar situation.
4. She adapts to the unfamiliar situation.
5. She gets what she wants (more or less)
6. But pays a heavy price for it.
7. She returns to the familiar situation.
8. Having changed.

Harmon: Plotting
a better pie chart
It should be noted that these pie wedges conform to percentages of your story, whether you're counting in words, pages, or minutes. So in this model, we ought to learn what your MC wants by the end of the first quarter.

Let's say you have a 250 page novel. Each pie wedge, then, represents about 31 pages. Halfway through, on page 125, your character ought to have adapted to her unfamiliar situation. She's going to be paying a heavy price somewhere around page 187.

Obviously, nobody is holding you to these exact page counts. You can play with it. But I think Harmon would argue that if you play too far, you've destroyed his "embryo." Harmon himself would, at this point, throw it out and start over.

See yet another four-part story structure by clicking here. And here's today's blog hop:


  1. Interesting! I'm always looking for uncomplicated structure tools, and this looks like a useful one. (I thought of one of my novels as I read each of the pie wedges and I think it matches up pretty well. Yay!) Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love this... I've been watching Community since season 1 and the careful structure was evident in each episode, so it's great to see the care Harmon gives to craft. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Cool, bluestocking! I haven't watched Community, but I plan to start. @MG, glad to hear your mss matches up with this. I plotted the whole of my second mss in a weekend recently, using a similar method.

  4. Gail this is wonderful! I love plot structure. There are so many ways to do it. This is very specific and good. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Ooh, I like this! I love looking at plotting from different perspectives, because it always helps clarify things for me. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. I think plotting is like the three blind men and the elephant - we all see it in slightly different ways, but it's all part of the same thing: storytelling is very primal.

  7. This is SO useful! Thankfully my new story matches up to the structure pretty well...

    Printing this out and putting it on my wall. Genius.

  8. Thanks for visiting, guys, glad that helped!

  9. I love seeing proven story structures, and love the fact that there seem to be quite a few out there. If Snyder's method doesn't work for me, this one looks like a good one to try.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

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