Dan Harmon is an American writer and producer best known for the NBC comedy Community. He also created the animated series Rick and Morty, which debuted on Adult Swim in 2013.
If you’ve ever seen Community or watched one of his interviews, you know that Dan Harmon has some pretty unique views on storytelling. He came up with a very original way of organizing narratives called the Story Circle.
In this guide, we’re going to go over what exactly the Story Circle is and who should use it.
We’ll also discuss how a similar technique called the Hero’s Journey can be useful when writing screenplays or novels.
dan harmon story circle
What Is dan harmon’s story circle?
The Dan Harmon Story Circle is a way to visualize character arcs. It’s a basic model for storytelling, one that’s been used for thousands of years and by everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to Pixar.
The idea is that there are eight steps to a story. You can use it creatively, as a way to brainstorm or outline your own stories.
Or you can use it analytically, breaking down the stories you love into their component parts and finding ways to incorporate them into your own work.
Ever wondered how hit shows like “Community” and “Rick and Morty” keep us hooked?
It’s all thanks to the Dan Harmon Story Circle, a revolutionary approach to storytelling that’s reshaping how we think about narratives.
In this article, we’ll jump into the eight steps of this storytelling framework that’s become a game-changer for writers and creators.
We’re about to unlock the secrets that make stories resonate so deeply with audiences, so let’s get started.
Step 1: The Setup
In the realm of storytelling, the initial step of the Dan Harmon Story Circle is fundamental – introducing the status quo.
It plants the audience in the protagonist’s everyday life before the adventure begins.
We see this in movies like The Matrix, where Neo’s mundane existence is established, cementing our understanding of his need for change.
This step does more than just show routine; it establishes empathy.
We’re given a lens through which to view the character’s desires, fears, and world.
Think of Sarah Connor’s normal life before the chaos in Terminator or Frodo’s tranquil existence in The Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
We identify key elements to weave into the setup:
- The protagonist’s current situation,
- The environment or world they inhabit,
- The impending change or conflict hint.
Aligning the audience with the character’s perspective is crucial.
We aim to create a bond that carries viewers seamlessly into the ensuing journey.
By mastering this phase, we set the stage for a compelling narrative, ensuring our audience is hooked and ready for the ride.
In essence, the setup is our foundation – we build a relatable and vivid world without which the story lacks depth and engagement.
Crafting this effectively primes the narrative for the transformation that lies ahead.
Step 2: The Trigger
After setting the stage with an engaging setup, we reach the crucial second step of the Dan Harmon Story Circle – the Trigger.
In this phase, something new occurs that sets the character into motion, propelling them from their comfort zone into the unknown.
The Trigger, or inciting incident, acts as a catalyst that disrupts the status quo and ignites the story’s momentum.
We often witness this moment as a significant event or decision that challenges the protagonist’s everyday life.
In Finding Nemo, it’s Marlin’s son Nemo being captured, which launches Marlin’s ocean-spanning quest.
For Neo in The Matrix, it’s choosing to take the red pill, leading him down the rabbit hole of revelations.
These triggers create a curiosity that hooks viewers into the narrative, eager to discover what happens next.
The Trigger should:
- Present a clear challenge or opportunity for the protagonist,
- Evoke emotional investment in the character’s journey.
Its role is pivotal in transforming the protagonist’s path from static to dynamic.
Recognizing the importance of this turning point ensures that the audience remains engaged with the character’s unfolding adventure.
The effectiveness of the Trigger lies in its ability to seamlessly shift the narrative towards the upcoming quest while maintaining the initial empathy established in the setup.
Crafting a compelling Trigger requires careful consideration of timing and impact.
It’s more than just an event – it’s a doorway that, once crossed, pushes the protagonist into uncharted territories and towards personal growth.
This second step is both a disruption and an invitation, asking the character and the audience alike to brace for the transformative odyssey that lies ahead.
Step 3: The Quest
After the protagonist encounters the Trigger, we witness them embark on what we know as The Quest.
This is when the journey truly begins and the character takes their first, often hesitant, steps into the new world.
The Quest opens up an array of conflicts and challenges that our hero must confront.
It’s not just about the external voyage but also about the internal struggles they face along the way.
In the world of filmmaking, it’s crucial that The Quest is engaging – it’s the meat of the story where audiences become fully invested.
Think of The Lord of the Rings where the fellowship sets out on their perilous journey to Mount Doom.
The stakes are high and the path is fraught with danger, yet it’s the choices and actions of the characters during The Quest that keep viewers glued to their screens.
The Quest should incorporate several key elements:
- A clear goal or desire for the protagonist,
- Multiple obstacles that test the protagonist’s resolve,
- Opportunities for character development and relationship dynamics.
Consider how The Matrix elevates Neo’s journey with each progressive challenge he faces.
The Quest is where we see the transformation gears beginning to turn – it’s exhilarating, it’s revealing, and it sets the pace for the entire narrative.
We understand that it’s not just about reaching the end but about the transformation that occurs throughout the journey.
It’s these transformative experiences that resonate with audiences and leave them yearning for more.
Step 4: The Surprise
After the hero embarks on The Quest, they encounter an unexpected Step 4 – The Surprise.
This critical turning point deviates from the planned journey, throwing the character into a state of shock and causing them to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew.
The Surprise involves two critical elements:
- A shift in the story direction – The narrative deviates, leading to new possibilities.
- An emotional response – The protagonist and the audience experience heightened emotions.
The function of The Surprise is multifaceted.
It elevates the stakes and shapes the hero in profound ways.
Films like Star Wars and The Lion King showcase how such twists create unforgettable moments.
Here’s what The Surprise achieves:
- It introduces new layers to character arcs.
- It heightens the audience’s investment.
The Surprise isn’t just about shocking the audience; it provides an opportunity for the protagonist to display resilience.
They might stumble and falter, yet it’s their reaction to The Surprise that reveals their true character.
Consider Neo’s encounter with Oracle in The Matrix, illustrating the unplanned revelations that propel the character forward.
Besides, The Surprise serves as a catalyst for the story, ensuring that the audience remains intrigued.
Pacing is key here, as the twist should occur at the right moment to maintain a gripping narrative.
It’s not only about the shock value but also about how it seamlessly integrates into the plot without disrupting the story flow.
Our challenge as filmmakers is to weave The Surprise into our narratives elegantly.
We aim to balance the unexpected with our story’s established direction, creating a coherent yet startling midpoint that transforms the protagonist’s path.
Step 5: The Critical Choice
After the protagonist is hit with The Surprise, they’re faced with Step 5 – The Critical Choice.
This is where the hero must decide how to deal with the events that have just unfolded.
Often, this decision is difficult and fraught with moral implications, setting the stage for significant character development.
The Critical Choice is a defining moment in any narrative.
It tests the protagonist’s resolve and pushes the story toward a new direction.
For filmmakers, constructing this moment requires a deep understanding of the character’s motivations to ensure that their decision is both impactful and believable.
In creating The Critical Choice, we consider the following elements:
- The protagonist’s goals and fears,
- The stakes if they succeed or fail,
- Potential sacrifices or consequences.
This choice fundamentally alters the protagonist’s journey.
In The Matrix, Neo’s decision to take the red pill is a prime example.
It embodies a critical choice that irrevocably changes his reality and propels the story forward.
The audience’s connection to the character is strengthened at this juncture.
We witness the hero’s values and the extent they are willing to go to achieve their goals.
It’s not just about the choice itself, but its ripple effect on the narrative.
By making The Critical Choice credible, we ensure that the audience remains invested.
The character’s path becomes more complex, and we pave the way for even greater challenges ahead.
These decisions often Help the transition into the next phase of the Dan Harmon Story Circle, leading to growth and eventually to a transformed protagonist.
Step 6: The Climax
The Climax is where tensions peak and the protagonist’s efforts culminate in a pivotal moment.
It’s the thrilling result of the groundwork laid throughout the Story Circle, pushed forward by the Critical Choice made by the protagonist.
Here, all the stakes are highest, and the audience is on the edge of their seats, eager to see the outcome of the protagonist’s journey.
In The Matrix, Neo’s realization that he is indeed ‘The One’ defies the odds in an extraordinary display of power.
In filmmaking, orchestrating such a moment demands careful planning to ensure the payoff is both emotionally satisfying and narratively consistent.
Key Aspects of a Powerful Climax
- High stakes,
- Ultimate test of character’s resolve,
- Significant confrontation or revelation.
Maintaining engagement through to the Climax requires a series of escalating events that intensify the protagonist’s challenges.
We build tension not just through the plot but also through the character’s internal conflicts.
This is where we see whether our hero has truly transformed or if old habits die hard.
Visual storytelling plays a crucial role here as well.
Through cinematic techniques such as close-ups and pacing that mirrors the protagonist’s heartbeat, we communicate the depth of the moment.
Consider the gripping duel in Star Wars: A New Hope, where the visual storytelling amplifies the tension as Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader.
Crafting the Climax is as much about timing as it is about the narrative punch.
It’s the crescendo of music that we’ve been orchestrating, and when done right, it can leave the audience breathless.
We focus on delivering that captivating experience, where every element of the filmmaking process aligns to create an unforgettable peak in the protagonist’s journey.
Step 7: The Reversal
As our protagonists encounter “The Reversal”, they are thrust into an upside-down world.
It’s a transformative stage where the rewards or consequences of the Climax begin to unfurl.
The hero’s world has changed, often inverting previously held beliefs or circumstances.
In crafting “The Reversal,” we ensure that it reflects a deep change, whether it’s internal or external.
The audience should witness a significant transformation that directly contrasts the protagonist’s initial state.
Films like The Matrix and The Godfather exemplify powerful reversals that reframe the entire narrative.
At this point, the hero begins to piece together the journey’s lessons.
They carry their new understanding forward, which often leads to resolving loose ends.
We emphasize visual storytelling to underscore the changes.
Key elements to focus on include:
- Dramatic shifts in character relationships,
- Visual contrasts to previous scenes,
- Altered character motivations.
Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind employ these techniques artfully, showcasing the protagonist’s transformation through altered memories and settings.
Our goal is to leave the audience reflective about the journey and the evolution that has taken place.
As we align the various filmmaking components – screenplay, cinematography, sound design, and performance – “The Reversal” becomes a poignant moment.
It’s where audiences can truly see the growth and resolve of the characters emerge.
Let’s not forget that “The Reversal” sets the stage for the final act.
It’s here that we tee up the ultimate resolution, preparing the audience for what is yet to come.
Step 8: The Resolution
In the final step of the Dan Harmon Story Circle, we find The Resolution.
It’s here that the protagonist returns to their familiar situation, now transformed by the journey they’ve embarked upon.
This ultimate step showcases a return to the world but with a fresh perspective or change indicative of the experiences faced and lessons learned throughout the narrative arc.
Although the protagonists return to a familiar setting, it’s never quite the same.
We see a resolved narrative that aligns with the transformed characters, tying up loose ends and providing a clear contrast to the beginning.
Films like The Lion King effectively demonstrate this, where Simba returns to Pride Rock, now ready to be king after coming full circle.
Critical elements of the resolution may include:
- Protagonists applying their newfound knowledge or skills,
- Secondary characters acknowledging the growth or change of the protagonist.
Resolution in film is not simply about returning home or achieving goals.
It’s about illustrating growth and conveying a satisfying sense of closure to the audience.
Yet, it’s also where we leave room for potential continuations, which is particularly significant in the world of filmmaking.
Certain franchises, such as Star Wars, leverage The Resolution not as an absolute end but as a bridge to the next cycle or sequel.
The visual components of this step are vital.
Subtle or dramatic changes in the setting or costume indicate the protagonist’s transformation.
In The Matrix, Neo’s final scene uplifts the audience with a sense of triumph and a transformed reality that stems from the protagonist’s journey.
Our journey through the Story Circle has illuminated the path that characters traverse.
Audiences can trace the character’s footsteps back to where they started but can clearly perceive the profound evolution they’ve undergone.
The Resolution seals the narrative loop but also leaves an imprint of change that resonates beyond the screen.
Dan Harmon Story Circle – Wrap Up
We’ve explored the transformative power of the Dan Harmon Story Circle, delving into how the final step, “The Resolution,” brings characters full circle.
It’s this mastery of storytelling that not only completes the journey but also leaves us with characters who’ve evolved, offering a satisfying sense of closure.
As writers and creators, we understand that the art of a good story lies in its ability to reflect change and impact viewers long after the tale has been told.
By embracing this narrative tool, we can craft stories that resonate deeply with audiences, ensuring our characters’ adventures leave a lasting impression.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Dan Harmon Story Circle?
The Dan Harmon Story Circle is a narrative structure that outlines a protagonist’s journey in eight distinct steps, designed to guide story development and character growth within a compelling and relatable arc.
What Is The Eighth Step Of The Story Circle Known As?
The eighth step of the Story Circle is known as “The Resolution.
” It signifies the conclusion of the protagonist’s journey.
What Does “the Resolution” Step Represent?
“The Resolution” step represents the protagonist’s return to their normal situation, now equipped with new insights or transformations gathered from their adventures and challenges faced throughout the story.
How Does “the Resolution” Showcase Character Growth?
Character growth is showcased through changes in the protagonist’s outlook, behavior, or circumstances that reflect the experiences and lessons learned during their journey, emphasizing personal development.
What Is The Purpose Of Visual Components In “the Resolution”?
Visual components, such as alterations in setting or costume, are used to visibly indicate the protagonist’s transformation and to highlight the impact of their journey on both the character and their world.
Does “the Resolution” Provide Closure For The Story?
Yes, “The Resolution” ties up loose ends and provides closure, while also contrasting the protagonist’s new state with the beginning of the story, illustrating their growth.
Can The Story Circle’s “the Resolution” Lead To A Continuation Of The Story?
Yes, although “The Resolution” seals the narrative loop and concludes the story, it leaves an imprint of change that can resonate beyond the current narrative, potentially allowing for future continuations.