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Spotlight On Structure: The Story Circle by Dan Harmon

All About Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon is an American writer, producer, and actor. Harmon created and produced the NBC sitcom Community; he also co-created the animated series Rick and Morty. He’s also an industry mover and shaker, having co-founded the alternative television network and website Channel 101. In other words, he’s not only a creative, but a guy who knows the whole caboodle!

Harmon is also the creator of a structural visual representation he calls ‘The Story Circle’. One of the primary remits of B2W is writing craft, especially structure, so I thought I’d put it under the microscope like I have with previous visuals. You can see those in the links below.

5 Visual Representations Of Storytelling Structure

2 Simple Tips To Spot Structural Problems In Your Writing

How To Write A Perfect Scene

Why Lack Of Structure Is Killing Your Characters

Why Being An Expert At Structure Helps your Writing

So, let’s check out what Harmon has to say about structure with his Story Circle.

The Story Circle

Listed below is Harmon’s 8 Steps to his circle. As he says on the Channel 101 website, it obviously won’t fit every single story known to humankind. There are exceptions to everything, but that’s called style, not structure. But here we go:

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
  2. Need (but they want something)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
  4. Search (adapt to it)
  5. Find (find what they wanted)
  6. Take (pay its price)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started)
  8. Change (now capable of change)

The visual below is from filmword.

The Story Circle & The Monomyth

The parallel’s between Harmon’s Story Circle and Campbell’s Monomyth are obvious. Harmon says this himself:

‘Joseph Campbell was a comparative mythologist, not a corny screenwriting guru. Nevertheless, here is where I, Dan Harmon, feel that the chapters of Campbell’s famous “monomyth” or “hero’s journey” would fall if you forced them into my circle.’

He then lays them out as following, with this in mind …

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.

Just an FYI, Campbell wrote the Monomyth and it was Chris Vogler who updated it as The Hero’s Journey. For a comparison of the two  — CLICK HERE.

B2W’s Take

I like The Story Circle a great deal. It’s simple and clear, so it’s been useful in talking with B2Wers about structure over the years. But as Harmon himself recognises, The Story Circle is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Here’s where it falls down …

i) The Hero’s Journey is not the only plotting archetype

It’s true the Monomyth and Hero’s Journey are the most popular templates for stories, especially in the past 35-40 years. That said, these templates are not the ONLY plotting archetypes. Plotting archetypes like ‘Voyage & Return’ and ‘Rebirth’ are just two plotting archetypes that have cropped up in HUGE movies in the past two or three years. No idea what these plotting templates are or how they work? CLICK HERE.

ii) Audiences are demanding less idealised heroes

No, I don’t mean the BS online crit term ‘Mary Sue’. This is simply a sexist and juvenile denigration of female leads … Which in turn is a sexist and juvenile denigration of (primarily female) fanfic writers. Now that crap’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.

In the past 2 or 3 years, heroes are not as idealised as they once were because where they start – their storyworld, thus their motivation – is in doubt. In 2019’s Captain Marvel, Carol Danver’s arc is not as idealised as her ‘just’ being heroic and defeating the baddies like The Hero’s Journey demands. In fact, it’s not even clear WHO the baddies even are until very late in the story. Instead, Danvers must confront she herself is on the wrong side.

iii) Characters don’t ‘HAVE’ to change

The vast majority of characters, whatever the plotting archetype, despite various audience prefs, will change in some way. B2W calls this ‘the transformative arc’.  That said, not every character changes … Some characters are change agents, who make other characters change. Plus what constitutes ‘change’ anyway? Is a realisation in the story a fundamental change to the character, or just a realisation? Where do we draw the line?

When I wrote THIS POST about this six years ago, there was epic pushback. Most writers I talked to were very, very resistant to the idea that some iconic heroes like John McClane and Ellen Ripley might not *really* change. Intriguingly, over the past few years in particular I’ve noticed a sea change not only amongst the B2Wers, but the writing community online generally. Perhaps this is because writers are investing more in alternative plotting archetypes to the Monomyth. Whatever the case, based on Google searches I believe The Story Circle was created/came into prominence around 2012 … Thus it is a product of the time when more writers believed characters HAD to change. That doesn’t make it incorrect by the way, but it is worth remembering.

iv) Character study movies are becoming popular

As we’ve seen this year with Joker, audiences have responded wildly. The movie has made it into $1Bn territory, which surpasses execs’ wildest dreams for it. But Joker is not a ‘classic’ hero’s journey, only with a bad guy at the top … Hell, it’s not even a genre movie, but a drama (don’t know the difference? CLICK HERE).

Instead, Joker is a character study. As structure goes, its plot is a series of vignettes … It is a snapshot of man falling rapidly into decline, whether that is mentally, or his behavioural reactions or both (despending how you see it). Cinephiles know these type of character studies were once very popular, especially in the 1970s. As we know already, the industry is cyclical and audiences are becoming more and more interested in shades of grey when it comes to characterisation. B2W has already predicted character studies will come back with a vengeance. Given the amounts of potential £££$$$ on the table now, this seems even more likely.

v) ‘Villains’ are getting ever more complex

If we consider a ‘typical’ hero like T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther, we are asked to invest in his journey versus antagonist Erik Killmonger’s. On surface level, this is obvious: T’Challa is a good, wholesome Prince. Killmonger is literally called Killmonger; he is a mass murderer. Le Duh. It is the Monomyth in action.

But as anyone who’s actually seen Black Panther, it is not as simple as this. In the course of the story, T’Challa must confront the possibility that his father – and this Wakanda – was in the wrong. This means Killmonger, however repugnant his actions are, is actually in the right. Eeek.

Also, it’s ALWAYS worth remembering that antagonists don’t have to be ‘bad’. They just have to be aberrant, whatever that means to the protagonist. More on complex villains, HERE.

Summing Up

Harmon has done a good job here … The Story Circle is a great visual representation of structure. It is popular amongst the Bang2writers because it is simple and easy to understand. After all, in most stories, most protagonists want or need something specific. They will have to move from their old lives and go through a number of obstacles (including the antagonist) to get it. This is why the vast majority of stories (especially movies) are ‘Hero’s Journey’ type tales.

That said, Harmon’s Story Circle relies too heavily on the Monomyth/Hero’s Journey for modern storytelling. I believe we are in a period of transition right now. B2W predicts we will see more and more complexity to both characterisation and plotting in the next ten years, in both TV and movies. This means the ‘exceptions’ Harmon recognises here will only grow. With that in mind, writers should see The Story Circle as just ONE tool for looking at structure … not their only one.

Good Luck!

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