Monday, June 14, 2021

Dan Harmon Story Circle: Use It to Make Your Stories Better

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In the words of the legendary American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Math is the language of the universe”. However, as far as languages of the universe go, there is another one, the language of “story”. A crucial and indispensable aspect of human existence is storytelling. Storytelling is how we have passed our history on to younger generations. We have learned “how to live” and the answers to the “rights” and “wrongs” of life through storytelling. A story can vary in complexity and scope. Whether it is a small story about a boy who cried wolf or The Lord of The Rings, the impact of a story is profound. To understand and analyse a story, you don’t really need to have a doctorate in English. Almost all of know what is a nice story. Even if we can’t enunciate or articulate it clearly, we know it. And as far as important storytelling elements go, perhaps nothing is as important as structure. In this post, we will talk about a system/narrative formula which goes a long way in giving structural integrity to your stories. We will be talking about the Dan Harmon Story Circle. It is used widely by story writers all over the world. In case you were curious about finding out more about it. Let’s get started.

Dan Harmon Story Circle: All You Need to Know

Who is Dan Harmon?

Dan Harmon was born on January 3rd, 1973 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Dan Harmon is most famous as the creator, writing, and producer for Community (2009) and Rick and Morty (2013). He also is known for writing and producing earlier works such as Computerman (2003), and Laser Fart (2004). He was married to Erin McGathy for some time.

What is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle?

The Dan Harmon Story Circle is an eight part story structure that follows the journey of a protagonist through the story. It is also known as “The Story Embryo” or “Plot Embryo”. All of these steps track the character’s pursuit of a goal that exists beyond the normal world. Their inevitable return finds them changed, whether or not they achieved their goal. The Dan Harmon Story Circle is named after writer and director Dan Harmon who rose to fame because of his work on popular shows like Rick and Morty and Community. 

What are the different steps of the Dan Harmon Story Circle:

  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: Get what they wanted, 
  6. Take: Pay a heavy price for it, 
  7. Return: Then return to their familiar situation, 
  8. Change: Having changed.

Now, let’s find out about these steps in detail. We will also use examples from the Harry Potter franchise to explain each step better.

1. You

The big reason behind considering the Dan Harmon Story Circle, a circle is that the first element (you) is also the final element (changed). This section of the story does the job of establishing the protagonist (a single character, a group of characters, or even something as large as an army or organization). Then we need to evaluate what identifies the protagonist and what makes the audience/readers identify with it. This is important because once we move through the entire circle, our experience with the story should close the loop with a new, changed you — based on the events that play out.

Here’s where we detail what makes our protagonist unique and what it is about them that we’ll hold onto throughout the story. What’s the condition of the protagonist’s environment? What are the other important elements of their lived experience that need to be considered for understanding the world that’s being built. 

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter and his zone of comfort: Now, well adjusted humans know that Harry Potter’s situation is anything but comfortable. He lives under the stairs for goodness sake. But that disqualifies him from starting at this point. This first step pretty much means that life is normal, or as normal as it can be living with the Dursleys. Nothing has changed recently and nothing will change without some kind of outside influence, or internal motivation from Harry Potter. Neither of those things seems to be coming from Harry Potter’s perspective, but that’s where things get interesting.

2. Need

The need always serves as the primary motivation to transport the protagonist out of his/her normal world and into the story’s experience. Now, we will go through the simple formula that can be used to develop a logline for your project (essentially, your elevator pitch). Working through the Story Circle also means that you will most likely be unaware about all the details of your story yet. So making a logline might prove to be a little challenging. However, a simplistic formula of the logline will show you how the elements of the circle come together to make a short, effective summary of your entire script.

In the logline formula, an “inciting incident” leads to the “protagonist” taking an “action.” This is known as the “need” stage of the Story Circle. The protagonist’s world has been changed by somebody or something. Consequently, the protagonist must do something about it. Things like averting a catastrophe, recovering an artifact, or winning the big game.

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter wants/needs something: Harry Potter didn’t actually know what he wanted until Hagrid knocked down the door and told him he was a wizard. Hagrid is that outside force that allows Harry Potter to realize he wants something more. He wants to get away from the Dursley’s and he wants to be a wizard. Who wouldn’t? But choosing to want something starts us into movement along our circle. This motion has consequences, and that’s our plot. There would have been no story if Harry Potter told Hagrid to get lost. At least not until Harry Potter turned 17 and would have been disintegrated by Lord Voldemort when the protection spell broke. Dan Harmon talks about this circle as having literal force. Making that first choice is making you unbalanced so you fall towards step two, then step three, and so on until you get to the bottom.We’ll discuss what happens at the circle’s bottom later, but just imagine that one your character makes that first step of motion he will move all the way down to the bottom of the circle without much effort. That’s important.

3. Go

This stage is the first time that the protagonist engages with the script’s central premise. However, once you have successfully established the need  the protagonist needs to leave their established, stable world behind and begin the process of resolving the need, whatever that action amounts to.If the Story Circle were a hike, this would be the moment when the hiker departs the trailhead and begins the climb.

The best stories always involve the protagonist engaging the need in compelling ways. It will never be a compelling or interesting story if it’s a direct path from A to B. There’s an opportunity for the writer (at this stage of the circle) to sow the seeds of the challenges that the protagonist will encounter at a later stage.

Harry Potter Universe

Entering an unfamiliar situation: This one is easy. Harry Potter leaves the familiarity of his Aunt and Uncle’s home and enters the magic world of wizards. Everything is strange, nothing is as it seems, and living here has its own set of challenges. Everything from traversing the ever-changing castle to dealing with people like Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape is new and challenging. This is the opportunity for growth. But like I said earlier, the circle has downward force. Because Harry Potter chooses to leave his familiar setting he is forced to adapt to this new one. Sure he could have left and gone home, but he would never really be the same because he would know more than he did before and he would be considered a failure.

4. Search

Now that the story’s protagonist has arrived on the path and started the journey, it might be a little tough to figure out what they need to do to fully answer the need. These things shouldn’t be easy to figure out for the protagonist as it will make the story quite dull. In all likelihood, the protagonist’s life has changed irrevocably and there’s no going back. Usually, this process of discovering what the protagonist needs to do to fulfil the need will need the protagonist to lose (at worst) or pay (at best0 something. Nothing is ever free.

The search stage can serve as a kind of narrative gatekeeper. The world is wild and crazy but it does have the answer to the protagonist’s needs. However, to find the answer, the protagonist needs to go past the gatekeeper first.

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter must Adapt. Everything that is happening through this step is reactionary. Harry Potter is only doing what he needs to in order to survive in his environment, and that is only because he made that first step to want something more. He’s just trying to keep his head above water, but eventually he does get comfortable enough that he could technically stay down here near the bottom of the circle. He could just keep his head down and not do anything heroic and he’d be boring and he wouldn’t be a hero.

5. Find

At this point of the Dan Harmon Story Circle, the protagonist has been hard at work, seeking the answers for the need. This step of the circle involves surmounting challenges, solving mysteries, and surviving fights. In other words, the protagonist has transformed and become the drive to answer the need.

However, when the protagonist makes the find, there’s a problem. The protagonist figures out that the assumed need wasn’t really a need after all. Or the protagonist figures out that something else is needed. Sometimes a new problem might rise.  At this point, the protagonist (who’s been mostly a driving force trying to reach the find) must self-reflect and reevaluate. The protagonist also needs to reorient as a more complex character in relation to the shifting stakes of the story.

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter gets what he wants. He’s adapted to his new environment. He’s popular. He’s the star of the Quidditch team. He has friends. These are all things he’s longed for when living at the Dursleys, and which he could only achieve if he made that first choice to leave. This is where he wants to be. He feels like his goals are accomplished, and he’s happy. He wishes he could just write “The End” and live happily ever after, but that’s not the journey of a hero and certainly not the story of Harry Potter.

6. Take

Even though what the protagonist gets in the last stage isn’t what he/she set out to find, there is no option but to take it in its newer, stranger form. This might mean grabbing the goods and running. Or, it might mean that the protagonist will be compelled to apply some new scientific truth to an environmental crisis. Or, it might result in utilising some skill that the protagonist has sought for a long time. The find may not have solved all the problems that the protagonist thought it would, but it’s still an integral part of the story that’s developing and it will help define the story’s resolution in the end.

It won’t be easy getting out with the take — in fact, it should be difficult — but in the end, overcoming the odds will go a long way in redefining the character and setting up the change that happens at the circle’s end.

Harry Potter Universe

The Heavy Price: Now because of things that happened before Harry Potter’s birth, Harry Potter was taken out of the life he was destined for, (living in the wizarding world with his family) and had to live a life with the Dursleys. To go back to his life as a wizard he has to pay a heavy price. That price is that Lord Voldemort will be coming for you until either you or he is dead. (“Neither can live while the other survives.”) It’s a little unfair that Harry Potter has to pay this price and others don’t, but that’s why he’s a hero. This price goes on through all seven books until Harry Potter finally gets to live his life as he always wanted, but for this book it’s a little smaller than that. Earlier we talked about how the first half of the circle is very reactionary in plot. Harry Potter is just treading water. But now he has to start being proactive if he wants to climb up the second half of the circle. In the first book this is when he , Ron, and Hermione proactively search for answers of what is being hidden at Hogwarts, and then when they go after the stone and beat Quirrell. All of the trouble he goes through is payment for him coming back to the wizarding world. He would never have needed to pay that price if he had just stayed home.

7. Return

This stage of the Dan Harmon Story Circle is pretty much what it sounds like. The protagonist has successfully been through the challenges of the take, and is now on the way back home with the find. Upon the return, the world might look but there could be something subtly off. A lot of times, it might be tough to put these in words. The price of successfully returning and answering the need is that nothing will ever be the same.

Throughout the story, this is what the reader/viewer searched for. While the protagonist was a more goody two shoes squeaky clean figure at the beginning, the challenges and developments slowly chipped away innocence, peace, or stability. Having seen the protagonist go through this cycle, the new normal happens to be the payoff.

Harry Potter Universe

Returning home: Having thwarted Quirrel, Harry Potter finishes his year and goes back home. This isn’t a huge step, but it’s important so we can measure the progress of the hero. When Harry Potter meets up with his Aunt and Uncle again he is a different person. He’s more confident, he has friends, and he feels like spending time with the Dursley’s isn’t half as bad as it seems now that he’s been through so much. We may not have noticed so much change if the book had ended at Hogwarts in the hospital wing. Returning to a familiar place gives us that ruler for measuring Harry Potter.

8. Change

Many times, the protagonist returns to an unchanged world. However, the protagonist himself/herself might have undergone some critical changes. Just by virtue of returning to the old world, the order of things is disrupted by the protagonist. Belief systems may not work properly now, political situations that once seemed fair are corrupt, things that seemed beautiful no longer are. With more knowledge and a newer perspective, what seemed normal, nice and innocent, might seem vile and repulsive to the protagonist now. A lot of times, a protagonist who has been through a tumultuous and adventurous journey, might find the old “normal” to be too boring and plain.  

The world doesn’t always have to change but no protagonist will stay the same after undergoing such an exhausting journey. At this stage of the Dan Harmon Story Circle, deciding what will happen to your protagonist if he/she stays, now that they’ve changed, is a major thrill. Perhaps the protagonist has grown emotionally. Perhaps the protagonist has acquired a new set of skills that can benefit all of the people. The protagonist might even meet someone on the journey and fall in love with him/her. Things will obviously never be the same after that. However, you must remember that whatever change you want to bring in your protagonist’s personality, it should be satisfactory (at least) to the reader/audience. Don’t forget, they have also travelled with your protagonist throughout the journey.

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter Changed: Sometimes in stories this last step is more pronounced. In Lord of the Rings (the book) the Hobbits return home and have to save the Shire with what they’ve learned (The Scouring of the Shire section was not used in the Peter Jackson movie adaptation, but it’s a major story arc of the book and really shows off the skills that the hobbits learned in their journey). In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone for the book purists), steps seven and eight slightly blend into each other. Especially with how Dudley and his parents are reacting to being around Harry Potter. They give him more respect even though that respect is only earned through the fear of his magic, something they didn’t know about Harry Potter early on. 

Dan Harmon Story Circle: Conclusion

As you might have noticed by now, the beginning (you) is also the end (change) of the Story Circle. Stories are usually told in such cycles. And every other story that we listen to, read or watch, will have to fit into every other story we’ve experienced before. This is one of the big reasons why poorly structured stories or stories with an eccentric/avant garde structure tend to not resonate well with the audience.

Change is a critical aspect of making any story good. As a matter of fact, change is the key to any story’s progression. In essence, all of the eight steps of the Dan Harmon Story Circle are designed to facilitate that change. Telling stories is a basic, primal way in which we try to grasp the changes around us. The changes that we can’t control. Changes such as the death of loved ones, passage of time, seasonal change etc. Stories are a great representation of our understanding of the world around us. They help us cope with change. They also serve as a reminder that the only constant in this world is change. And life goes on, no matter what.

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