Story Structure: Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

This article was originally posted here.

How do you structure a story? We all know that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but is there any more depth to it than that? Yes, yes there is, and if you’ve ever tried to digest Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces you’ll know exactly how deep and complex story structure can get. For this reason, the universe gave us Dan Harmon and he, in turn, gave us his Story Circle.
The Story Circle is essentially a boiled down version of Campbell’s monomyth. Here, we’ll boil down the Story Circle for ease of understanding. Once you’ve got the idea, its well worth heading over and reading the original posts by Harmon himself as he goes into much more depth than I will here.

The Basic Structure Of Every Story


So let’s start with the basics. This is how every structurally sound story plays out:

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.

Or, boiled down only to the most important bits:

1. You
2. Need
3. Go
4. Search
5. Find
6. Take
7. Return
8. Change.

Memorise it. It won’t be hard to, it’s already ingrained in the part of your brain that recognises a good story.

The Steps Explained

1. “You.”
All you need to do here is show your protagonist. We need to know where we are and who we’re following. This is exposition, a quick tour of the world we’re inhabiting. This is your character’s life, the world he lives in, his roots.

2. “Need.”
Now show the problem. The world has a flaw, all is not right, your character’s life is imperfect in some way. His need will drive his personal journey. Whatever problem is presented here, he is offered a way of solving it, of fulfilling his need. He might refuse to solve it straight away, but rest assured he will give in and begin his journey, because this need is what the story is really about.

3. “Go.”
Everything changes. Whatever the hook of your story is, the thing you tell your friends the story is about to get them excited, it begins right here. The protagonist is thrown into a new world, crossing the first threshold into the unknown. We’ve crossed into a dark, mysterious world and our protagonist cannot leave until he has completed the trials that lay ahead.

4. “Search.”
The protagonist can’t just get what he wants by wanting it — he has to work for it, earn it. Campbell calls this “The Road Of Trials”. This is where the protagonist proves himself, overcoming challenges and in the process gaining the tools he needs in preparation for the events ahead. He is confronting his own limitations.

5. “Find.”
He finds what he is looking for, whether he knew he was looking for it or not. His trials have paid off. He couldn’t have got here without them. This is an intense moment, a moment of naked joy, weightlessness and vulnerability. This is the story’s midpoint, and marks the moment when the universe stops pulling the protagonist around and he must act on his own volition in order to proceed. It may be tempting to stay here, but he moves forward nonetheless.

6. “Take.”
Now to begin the journey back to the familiar world. This won’t be easy in the least, it is its very own road of trials, set to prepare our protagonist for his return to the familiar world. These trials strip away any remaining ego and by the time he’s through every last one of them he has become a living god. These trials are the price he has to pay for the previous step and for his return to the familiar world.

7. “Return.”
The last threshold. This is an epiphanal, defining moment, returning at last to his world as a new man. His journey has taught him all it could, and by crossing this threshold he tells the world he is ready to show what he has learned.

8. “Change.”
And he does. The tools and powers he acquired on his road of trials, or “Search”, have completed him. He has one last thing to do, a thing for which he needed to complete this journey, and this is where he does it. And the universe will bend to his will and give him what he wants, because he has become more than a man.

Applying The Story Circle
Go back to the basic outline. Whenever you’re putting together a story, no matter what form, see how well you can fit it to the steps outlined there. If it’s too much of a struggle then you probably have a problem with the structure of your story. Use the steps to see if you can change the story to better fit the structure laid out here and you’ll find your story will be more engaging.
What you shouldn’t do is use the Story Circle as a starting point, that’s a one way street to a formulaic, boring plot. It’ll be structurally sound, but it’ll have no style and no creative edge. This is a tool to aid the structure of your story, not a paint by numbers guide on how to write one.
The important thing to remember is that you’ll know intuitively if your story is lacking structure because it’ll feel incomplete. The structure laid out here is not invented, it’s discovered. It’s ingrained in the human psyche, the definition of a good story in its basic form.

Now that you’ve read my boiled down version of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, you should head over and read the original posts for extra depth and theory. You should also try to spot this structure when you’re reading or watching a story and write down the steps. Post the results in the comments below.

As always, keep writing.

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