Mastering Narrative Structure: Using Dan Harmon’s Story Circle for Effective Storytelling

If you’ve dipped your toes into the world of novel writing, chances are you’ve heard of Dan Harmon and his infamous Story Circle. This narrative structure is the brainchild of Harmon, a popular Hollywood writer, and producer with shows like Community and Rick & Morty in his portfolio. While it’s basically a shortened version of staple archetypes like the Hero’s Journey, The Story Circle is concise in its presentation, allowing for a much more flexible approach to storytelling.

Origins of the Story Circle

We are hardwired to connect with stories. From epic legends to personal anecdotes, stories can evoke powerful emotions and engage listeners in a way few other mediums can. Enter Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, a step-by-step methodology for mastering the basics of storytelling and creating stories that captivate audiences.

The Story Circle includes eight sections, each representing a different stage of the protagonist’s journey. Let’s look at these stages and see how you can use them to craft your narrative.

The Story Circle is a simple yet effective tool for crafting journey narratives that resonate with readers or viewers. It consists of eight steps. At their simplest, think of two aspects of a journey: time and universal realities. [All images from From Channel 101.]

dan harmon story circle

1: The Beginning and the End  

The story timeline moves from left to right along a horizontal axis. It divides the Story Circle with a vertical line, and

2. Life Patterns

Life, in theory, moves in cycles of descent and return,  life and death, order and chaos. Without getting too bogged down with the physics and metaphysics of it all, Harmon, in this article, explains that this descent and return pattern resonates with our reality. The Story Circle depicts the two halves with a horizontal line. 

order-chaos

Now consider a character, any character. Their world starts at the beginning of their known world. When an action or revelation upsets their world, they search for ways to restore balance.

Here is a depiction of this journey in its simplest form:

Dan Harmon StoryCircle

The Story Circle in detail: 

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort.
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation.
  4. They adapt to that situation.
  5. They get what they want.
  6. They pay a heavy price for it.
  7. They return to their familiar situation.
  8. And they have changed.

Deeper into The Story Circle Eight Stages

At its core, the Story Circle is about taking your audience on a journey. It’s about starting with a relatable character in a familiar setting, introducing a conflict that disrupts their comfort zone, and guiding them through twists and turns that ultimately lead to a satisfying conclusion. Let’s dig deeper into each of the eight stages.

Stage #1: The Zone of Comfort

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We meet our character in what Harmon calls their zone of comfort. It’s their home turf, where they feel safe and secure but limited in many ways. This stage is about introducing the protagonist and their world.  Depict essential items such as a job, a relationship, or a routine. Part of this depicting this world includes showing how the character processes their world and their role.

Stage #2: Desire is Out of the Zone of Comfort

But they want something. Every protagonist needs a goal, a reason to push beyond their zone of comfort. This could be anything from finding true love, getting a new job to saving the world.

Our character is presented with something they desire, but it lies outside their comfort zone. This could be a physical or emotional challenge or a change in their circumstances. Whether it’s something tangible like a buried treasure or something abstract like true love, it’s enticing enough for our protagonist to consider leaving the safety of their home turf to pursue it.

Stage #3: Unfamiliar Situation

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A conflict shakes up your protagonist’s world. This could be a physical challenge or a change in circumstances. Immediately, our protagonist enters an unfamiliar terrain that they must navigate to get what they desire. This part of the story focuses on their trials and tribulations.

Stage #4: Adapting 

Over time, our protagonist starts to adapt and better understand their new world. This could involve learning new skills or overcoming obstacles. They make allies, outsmart foes and develop strategies that help them overcome obstacles. But for this to happen, they must shed some of their preconceived notions and embrace the unfamiliar.

Stage #5: Getting What They Want

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At this stage, your hero finds whatever it is that will turn them into a hero. It could be anything from a love affair, a major self-realization, meeting someone all-powerful, or even a secret confession. Whatever it is, it’s the first sign that things are turning around for the protagonist.

Stage #6: Paying The Price

The character must shed a final layer of ego before becoming the hero of their own story. However, success comes at a cost. This could involve sacrificing a relationship, losing something they valued, or facing unforeseen consequences.

Whatever the ultimate sacrifice is, it strips away the character’s former identity so they can genuinely embrace lasting change and transformation.

Stage #7: Return to Zone of Comfort

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Returning to their comfort zone is more complex than you might think. The journey is not over. Our protagonist might battle, enter a car chase, or rush to catch up to an almost-lost love before they board that flight back home. Whatever it is, it’s the final challenge to prove they’re ready to take on their new identity.

Stage #8: Identifiable Change 

At the end of the story, our hero is different from the person they were at the start. All good stories involve transformation. 

Your character has learned valuable lessons on this journey. While there may be some lingering loose ends from their journey that they have to deal with, it’s clear to the reader that they have changed in a significant way.

Story Circle for Protagonist’s Arcs

Crafting a compelling protagonist is crucial for any story that hopes to captivate its audience. From the protagonist’s initial desire to their ultimate transformation, learn how to structure your story around this robust framework.

The Story Circle can help the writer analyze and create narratives around those eight stages.  Here’s how you can use the Story Circle to craft your protagonist’s arc:

1. Establish your character’s zone of comfort.

Start by introducing your protagonist and showing them functioning in their ordinary world. This is where they feel most at home and relaxed. Establish their routine, relationships, and any goals or aspirations they have. Show their personality and hint at a flaw or nagging desire for change. 

2. Introduce their need.

Something disrupts your protagonist’s comfortable existence. Show their reaction. Show their resistance. Perhaps they discover a long-lost family member, lose their job, or witness a crime. The need can be internal (such as a desire for a sense of purpose) or external (such as a quest for justice).

3. Take them out of their comfort zone.

Once the need has been established, your protagonist should leave their comfort zone and venture into the unknown. Show them considering and making this decision. They commit to achieving their goal and take the first steps in their journey.

4. Put them in an unfamiliar situation.

The unfamiliar situation can be a physical location, an emotional challenge, or a new group of people. Show them react to new characters and situations, still drawing from their old-world values. As your protagonist faces tests, show them grow and adapt as they process new experiences.

5. Show them adapting to the situation.

Your protagonist now begins to learn and adjust to their new surroundings. They must confront their weaknesses, fears, and limitations to grow stronger.

6. Have them get what they want— but at a cost.

Your protagonist has worked hard to achieve their goal, but there’s often a price to pay to get there. They may lose a friend or betray a loved one. This is the darkest moment in the protagonist’s journey.

7. Allow them to pay a heavy price.

The cost of achieving their goal weighs heavily on your protagonist as they face setbacks and consequences that they never anticipated. Show them considering if the price they paid is worth it.

8. Bring them back to their familiar world changed. They are no longer the same person as when they left. They have grown, adapted, and often become wiser and stronger. A good technique is to show this change with a callback to the story’s beginning. They are changed fundamentally, and the reader is left with the sense that the journey was worth it.

Using the Story Circle, you can create a protagonist that readers root for because they have seen them struggle and grow. The key to a robust and engaging protagonist is to have them face obstacles on a journey that changes them for the better or, perhaps, for the worse. Use the Story Circle to craft a protagonist’s arc that will resonate with your readers long after they’ve finished your book.

Creating subplots with the Story Circle

Sometimes, a story needs more than one plotline to keep readers engaged. Weave together multiple story arcs, each having its own Story Circle framework.

As a writer, you should explore different angles and perspectives to develop a complex story that captivates your readers and reveals a greater meaning. Subplots are an excellent way to achieve this and keep your audience engaged. Subplots are secondary story arcs that embody the story’s theme and intersect with the main plotline, adding depth and complexity to the story.

To weave together multiple story arcs within the Story Circle framework, you must start with a solid understanding of the main plotline. Review the key elements of the main storyline, including the character’s arc, the inciting incident, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution. This will help you identify how the subplots intersect and support the main plot.

Next, identify the key characters and their motivations within each subplot. Each subplot should have its own protagonist, antagonist, motivation, challenge, and resolution. Ensure that each subplot is compelling, coherent, and distinct.

As you craft the subplots, consider how they will be introduced, developed, and resolved. Subplots can be woven into the main plotline using various techniques, including parallel narrations, alternating scenes, or cross-cutting. Remember to ensure that the timing and pacing of each subplot are consistent with the main narrative.

Finally, ensure that the subplots and the main storyline interconnect to create a cohesive and satisfying story. The subplots should support and enhance the main plotline, not distract or overwhelm it. Each subplot’s resolution should also contribute to the resolution of the main plotline to build a satisfying conclusion.

Utilizing the Story Circle for any genre

By following these stages, writers can create a compelling and cohesive narrative that engages readers and keeps them invested in the protagonist’s journey. Whether you’re writing a romance, a thriller, or a sci-fi adventure, the Story Circle can be adapted to any genre or style of storytelling, making it a versatile and valuable tool for writers of all kinds.

Tips and tricks for implementing the Story Circle

From brainstorming to outlining to revising your manuscript, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a versatile tool. Here are some tips on putting the methodology into practice.

1. Start with a clear idea: Before implementing the Story Circle, ensure you have a clear idea of what you want to write about. Choose a theme that speaks to you and brainstorm around it to expand your ideas.

2. Divide your story into eight stages: Use the Story Circle to divide it into eight stages, beginning with the protagonist’s everyday life and ending with a return to their ordinary existence. This will provide a structure for your story that will keep things moving and prevent it from becoming stagnant.

3. Create relatable characters: Your characters are the lifeblood of your story, and you should take the time to create relatable and engaging characters that your readers will care about.

4. Map out your story: With your characters and stages in place, you can now map out your story. Decide on your inciting incident, major conflicts, and the resolution. This will help you stay focused and keep your writing flowing.

5. Consider using the circle for each chapter or scene. Every scene is a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. The Story Circle works on a smaller scale for each chapter, too.

6. Don’t be afraid to revise: The Story Circle is not a rigid formula, and you should not be afraid to revise your work if it is not working. Be open to feedback and willing to make changes if necessary.

7. Practice, practice, practice: The more you implement the Story Circle, the more comfortable you will become with using and expanding on it. Keep at it, and don’t give up!

Want to Dive Deeper?

The Story Circle Method is a great way to get the creative juices flowing—especially if you’re struggling to put pen to paper. If you want to learn more about this narrative structure, I highly recommend checking out this deep dive on the subject and browsing site with Harmon’s original posts: Channel101. Just remember that structure methodologies are tools—not rules. You don’t have to follow them to the letter, but you can certainly use them as a guide to help bring your story to life.

And if you want to reignite your writing motivation or just get those first few words on the pages, I’m always here to help. Check out my book coaching services for more information on how I can help you become a stronger, more confident storyteller.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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