You’ve probably heard of Dan Harmon, the creator of hit shows Rick and Morty, as well as Community. Today we’re talking about Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle is an eight-stage story structure that Harmon developed, and it is a simple and proven way to develop engaging plots! Dan Harmon’s Story Structure is a fantastic guide for any author, but it’s especially beneficial for the novice writer. If that’s you, read on, and let’s talk about how to create a plot using Dan Harmon’s Story Circle!
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle explained:
Harmon bases his story structure on the straightforward premise: all stories are circular. A character begins in a zone of comfort. The character discovers a need and moves out of their comfort zone; exciting things happen to them, they fulfill their need and arrive back at their comfort zone. It’s more complicated than that, but not by much!
Visualize the Story Circle by drawing a circle on a sheet of paper or in your mind. Then draw a vertical and horizontal line that intersect in the middle of the circle.
Then number the circle starting at the top of the vertical line with the number one. Place a five at the bottom of the circle, across from the one. Number the right-hand side of the horizontal lined with a three and the left side with a seven.
Number the quarters you’ve just created in order with numbers 2, 4, 6, 8. Your end product should look like the image at the top of this article.
Each of these numbers represents a stage in your story. Here’s how Harmon labels each step:
- The Eight Stages of the Story Circle:
- 1. A character is in a zone of comfort – YOU
2. But they want something – NEED
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation, – GO
4. Adapt to it, – SEARCH
5. Get what they wanted, – FIND
6. Pay a heavy price for it, – TAKE
7. Then return to their situation, – RETURN
8. Having changed. – CHANGE
We’ll cover all eight stages of this story structure in-depth, but if you want a deep dive from the man himself, Harmon wrote a six-part series on the Story Circle for his Channel 101 blog. You can find the archived post over at the Channel 101 Fandom page, and I’ll link the article at the bottom of this page.
Watch Dan Harmon explain his Story Circle:
The Eight Stages of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle:
Stage 1: A character is in their zone of comfort- YOU
In stage one, your job as a writer is to establish your protagonist. In other words, you want to tell the audience who they are- YOU.
Harmon claims that the best way to do this is to show your audience a character. It’s essential to do this early because if your reader is not in a character’s point of view, then they are not in the story.
More on character point of view:
An easy way to make your audience identify with your protagonist is to make us feel sorry for that character. Harmon uses the example of Die Hard. When we meet John McClain, he presents as a man on a plane afraid of flying. We can all identify with McClain’s anxiety, so we will naturally put ourselves in his shoes.
The first character you show may not be your protagonist, and that’s fine. However, Harmon warns about shifting from character to character:
“Lots of modern stories bounce us from character to character in the beginning until we finally settle in some comfortable shoes. The bouncing can be effective, but if it’s going on for more than 25% of your total story, you’re going to lose the audience.”
- Who is your protagonist?
- How will you make the audience feel for/ identify them? (hint: use pity)
- What is your character’s zone of comfort?
Stage 2: But they want something- NEED
At this stage, you will show that not all is right in your character’s life. There is a need, something missing from your protagonist that they will spend most of the story trying to fulfill. This need could be literal. Maybe your hero is lost in the wilderness like in Castaway or The Edge.
Your character’s needs can also be internal. In Die Hard, John McClain’s need is to repair his broken marriage. You can also give your character an internal and external need. In Castaway, Tom Hanks’ external need is to escape the desert island. His inner need is to return to his fiance and overcome the hopelessness of his situation.
Harmon compares this “need” section to the “call to adventure” in the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero will often refuse the call. In Harmon’s circle, the protagonist doesn’t need to reject the call. The refusal is just a way of increasing tension in your story.
If your character’s need is internal, Harmon mentions that the character can voice their need during this stage. If their inner need is to be independent, they might say, “I wish my family would disappear.” Your character will fulfill their needs, but not in the way they’re is expecting.
Example- our character wished his family away wakes up the following morning to find that his family went on vacation and forgot to take him along.
Harmon places this stage in straightforward terms:
“This is where we demonstrate that something is off balance in the universe, no matter how large or small that universe is.”
- What is your character’s external need?
- What is your character’s internal need?
- What thing(s) is/are missing from your character’s life?
- How will this need be fulfilled? (in a way that surprises your character/ reader)
Stage 3: They enter an unfamiliar situation- GO
Here comes the conflict.
What is your story about? Because this is the stage that you’re going to introduce that thing. Harmon equates this stage to a movie poster. What would you put on the movie poster if you were trying to sell your story?
The movie poster for Jaws features a shark, and it’s about a shark terrorizing a beach community. The movie poster for The Notebook is an image of a young couple kissing in the rain. The Notebook is about two teenagers from different sides of town who fall in love.
You can’t just start with action. The first part of your story, the YOU, was the setup. We have to get to know the character before we can introduce a conflict. The shark can cruise into the surf and chow down on a little boy now that we have the setup. This works because now we care about the characters
From this point forward, your story enters the Special World. It doesn’t matter how special this world is, but what does matter is that it dramatically contrasts from your character’s Ordinary World. Your hero will get the opportunity to fulfill their need, but they’ll go through hell to do it.
- Describe your story’s movie poster.
- What is the conflict of your story?
- How will that conflict enter your story?
- How does your story’s “special world” contrast from your “ordinary world?”
Stage 4: Adapt to it- SEARCH
At this point, your hero must shed ALL of their baggage. You, as the writer, are creating a scenario that will strip them down to their core being.
Harmon gives an example from Die Hard. At this moment in the story, we see John McClain gun down one of the terrorists in cold blood. McClain is shedding his outer self- New York cop and embracing his true self- Gunslinging Cowboy. The cowboy persona is the part of him that can take down a dozen terrorists.
Here’s what Harmon has to say about this phase, “We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.”
There’s no more room for your character’s b.s. Take away your characters’ cell phone, their insecurities, their fancy clothes, and their silly ideas about who they are. By the end credits of Castaway, Tom Hanks isn’t a time-crunched, overweight middle manager.
He’s a survivor.
- What is your character’s “outer self?”
- What is your character’s “inner self?”
- What will your character need to shed to get to that inner self?
Stage 5: Get what they wanted- FIND
Harmon mentions that Joseph Campbell called this stage “Meeting with the Goddess.” In symbolic terms, your hero was leaving their dysfunctional mother at stage one, and at stage five, they find a new form of the mother. That all seems needlessly Freudian, but use it as a way to frame and compare these stages in your mind.
Here your hero will find the one thing that they need to be a hero. The thing your character finds could be good, it could be great, but it’s probably an even mixture of both. This step is a discovery stage where your hero makes revelations, consummates a love affair, or in mysteries and thrillers, the plot may twist hard. Here are some plot points that could take place at this stage:
- A stunning discovery
- A sex scene
- A major plot twist
- A confession
- A self-relilatizaton
- A meeting with a powerful Oz-like character
The point of this stage is to change the direction of your story. From steps one through four, your character has been tumbling downward. Now, after the meeting, your protagonist will be moving upward. From here onward, your hero is moving on their own volition.
Harmon says that the goddess would be the undoing of a non-hero, but like Odysseus, your hero will move beyond the siren call, a changed person. If they started stage one a nerd, they leave stage five a calm, confident, sunglass-wearing dude.
Stage 6- Pay a heavy price for it- TAKE
Harmon also calls this stage “Meet your Maker.” Harmon compares it to the scene in Robocop when Murphy meets his literal maker, the company’s CEO that transformed him into a do-gooder cyborg.
This stage, typically, does not go well for the hero. Robocop gets his butt kicked. Why? Because this stage is opposite stage two, which is also called the “road of trials.” While stage two prepares your hero for their meeting with the goddess, stage six readies them for a return to the ordinary world.
At the Take stage, we strip away the last vestiges of your hero’s ego. Harmon frequently compares his story circle to a journey into the unconscious mind. We travel down through the mind to find who we truly are at the core- the goddess. On the way back up, we must change into our authentic selves. Lasting change, authentic change, can only take place through adversity.
Let’s go back to Castaway. Our hero meets his goddess at stage five- the discarded shell of a portapotty washes up on his beach. Our hero realizes he can use this trash as a sail and finally escape his island—with the help of his goddess; he sets off into the vast sea- stage six.
What’s the price our hero pays? We all know it, the saddest scene in movie history, he loses Wilson. But, what is Wilson? On the surface level, Wilson is just a volleyball, but to our hero, he is much more. Wilson is a crucial part of our hero’s psyche.
Throughout the movie, our hero talks to Wilson, really talking to himself. Wilson questions the hero’s actions and motives, and he wonders if his plan with the port-a-potty will work. Wilson doubts that they have enough rope. Wilson reminds our hero of his failed suicide attempt.
When Wilson finally departs, our hero mourns for the last tiny piece of his ego as it floats off into the sea. Wilson, the ego, is no longer needed. Our hero is stripped bare, and he now must rely on fate, the universe, whatever, to do with him what it wills.
- What will your hero have to sacrifice to achieve their goal?
- Who is your hero’s “maker,” and how will they meet?
Stage 7: Then Return to their situation- RETURN
Returns can be as easy as clicking your ruby slippers together and exclaiming your love for home. But, returns can also be complicated. Look at our boy from Castaway; once Wilson leaves him, he’s adrift in the ocean for days.
In this section, Harmon talks again about the separations between the conscious and unconscious mind:
“The natives of the conscious and unconscious worlds justify their actions however they want, but in the grand scheme, their goal is to keep the two worlds separate, which includes keeping people from seeing one and living to tell about it.”
Some ideas for the Return section:
- Chase scene
- “Catch your love interest before they board a plane” scene
- Ticking clock scene (think “which wire do I cut?!”)
- How will your hero return to their ordinary world?
- What challenges might get in their way?
Stage 8: Having changed- Change
Your hero returns to the ordinary world, having learned the lessons of the special world. The protagonist is now a master of both worlds. But, there’s still some trouble at this stage that the hero will face.
Although the hero has escaped the world of the unconscious mind, something might have followed them back. As Harmon puts it, “Sometimes Boss Hogg doesn’t stop at the county line. Sometimes the alien sneaks aboard your escape pod, or the T-Rex starts walking through people’s back yards. [sic]”
But, the hero isn’t the same person they were at stage one. They have learned the lessons of the special world, and they have shed their ego. Symmetry will guide your writing during the Story Circle. Unsure what to do at a particular stage? For guidance, look to the stage across from it.
Stage 8 is across from stage 4, and what did our hero do in that stage? Well, that was the road of trials. At stage 4, your character learned what it would take to become a hero. At stage 8, they will demonstrate the lessons learned during the road of trials.
Harmon mentions that this is an excellent time to bring back some elements you introduced in stage four. Was there a broken weapon that your hero couldn’t repair? Maybe now reveal that your hero has fixed the gun, or sword, or whatever, and wields it with expert skill. Or, was there a group of disenfranchised people your hero helped? In stage eight, that same group could be the cavalry coming in to save your hero’s butt.
This stage is the showdown, the final battle, or the long-awaited confession of love in a love story. Your hero has gone through hell and back for this very moment. Show that your character has become egoless, a true hero who knows exactly what to do and what to say.
- What has your hero learned during their journey?
- What bad qualities did your hero have to shed to get to this point?
- What will be the showdown of your story?
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle used in Rick and Morty
Here is a quick and simple breakdown of how the pilot episode of Rick and Morty demonstrates Harmon’s Story Circle.
Rick wakes Morty up in the middle of the night. Rick is drunk, and he tells Morty he wants to show him something. The two take off in Rick’s homemade spaceship and eventually crash. The viewer immediately identifies with Morty as the victim of Rick’s erratic behavior.
The next day at school, Morty daydreams about Jessica, a girl in his class. He doesn’t have the confidence to approach her, though.
Rick pulls Morty from school and takes him to an exotic planet to find and collect mega tree seeds.
A monster chases Rick and Morty towards a cliff. The two evade the monster, and find the mega trees, but they are at the bottom of the cliff. Rick gives Morty a futuristic pair of boots that allow him to walk down the side of the cliff. Morty fails to turn the boots on and falls down the cliff shattering his legs.
At the bottom of the cliff, they collect the mega tree seeds after Rick cures Morty by traveling into the future and retrieving a broken leg serum.
Rick’s trip to the future drains the battery on his inter-dimensional portal device. To get home, Rick explains, they’ll have to go through inter-dimensional customs. Morty will have to hide the giant, mega tree seeds in his butt to get through customs.
Custom agents search Morty. Rick and Morty run for it, and the customs agents take off after them. Rick and Morty run into a dead end, but Morty remembers the boots they are wearing. He turns them on this time, and the two walk up the wall and onto a roof to escape. This beat is an example of an element from stage four returning to save the day in stage eight!
Rick hijacks a portal while Morty fends off the guards with a gun. They travel through the doorway and land in Morty’s school cafeteria. Jessica seems impressed by Morty’s dramatic entrance. Morty’s parents confront Rick, and they are upset that Rick has pulled Morty out of school. However, the mega tree seeds in Morty’s butt give him temporary super-intelligence. He rambles off a few facts and convinces his parents that Rick’s influence is good for him.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Worksheet
Continued reading on the Story Circle: