Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Evolved

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.

In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.

So basically in simplest form it looks like this:

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)

Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…

1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?

I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.

Rob

4 thoughts on “Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Evolved

  1. Awesome ideas there Rob. Thanks so much for posting them.
    I am considering that maybe WriTracker should include a bunch of different ways of structuring.
    Imagine if you’re writing a Screenplay using WriTracker, and you hit the 40th page.. according to THIS formatting style you should be at your first turning point, for example.
    If I had a number of these formats, I could plug them in so writers could use them as a notification or not.

  2. I can appreciate the value of Joseph Campbell’s research, but, as popular as it is, it can’t encompass all of literature. At the same time, the hero’s journey requires so many exceptions that it ends up looking like Propp’s structuralist analysis of fairy tales. The argument always starts, “sometimes the hero does this…, but not always.” If that’s your formula, then you don’t have a formula, you have some vague ideas. Vague ideas are good, as they can inspire, but they cannot and should not be mistaken for formulas. To study this more closely, try breaking the binary reductions that are commonly used to support ideas like these.

  3. Hmmmm….

    I think again, the trick is to NOT get wrapped around the axle about the specifics. A story structure should be a tool that facilitates something, not an end unto itself. If one of ’em helps, then use it. If not, try another. I find WAY too often folks pick the “right” one and then twist everything they do to fit. Hence why “Save the Cat” ruined movies: it’s a real easy formula to use, and it’s geared for sales.

    Hell; you can reduce EVERY story EVER into one, simple single step formula. “Shit Happens.”

    >Imagine if you’re writing a Screenplay using WriTracker, and you hit the 40th page.. according to THIS formatting style you should be at your first turning point, for example.
    If I had a number of these formats, I could plug them in so writers could use them as a notification or not.

    Y’know…. that’s actually an interesting idea…. but I fear it’d turn into a “Save the Cat” thing in a hurry. People wouldn’t see it as a means, conforming to those milestones would become and end unto itself.

    Don C.

  4. Actually, I prefer to define narrative as a description of at least two connected events, and stories as one or more connected narratives. That definition comes from Russian structuralists. It proved especially useful when analyzing conversation-based stories. I recommend the book Living Narrative by Capps and Ochs for their take on structural analyses of stories. These structures are useful in examining stories, or even parts of stories, in RPGs, because RPGs violate many of the assumptions usually held by many other narratologists, such as the division of roles between teller and audience.

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