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Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

There are numerous ways you can write your screenplay. Some writers prefer to directly write the screenplay, some like to outline first, while some prefer a method that combines the two. While there is no one gold standard method for writing a screenplay, there are different approaches you can borrow from especially when you’re first starting out or staring the blank page for longer than you’d like or if you simply like to think things through structurally.

Out of the multiple templates and frameworks to choose from, eg. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, one of the most popular ones is the Story Circle by writer Dan Harmon. It is especially useful for those writers who create plot via character. 

Who is Dan Harmon?

While most screenwriting books and template apohorisms are written by educators or consultants, Story Circle is written by Dan Harmon, a successful writer, most notably known for co-creating the animated sitcom, Rick and Morty. 

Origin of the Story Circle

Harmon’s inspiration for the Story Circle primarily stemmed from his own experiences as a writer. He has cited Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey, as a significant influence on his work. 

Harmon’s contribution was to simplify and adapt these ideas into a more accessible and flexible framework that could be applied to a wide range of storytelling formats, including TV shows and screenplays.

What is the Story Circle

Now, let’s try and understand what the Story Circle actually is and how can you make use of it. 

Dan Harmon has simplified story beats and character development in 8 broad beats. 

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle illustrated.

Step 1: The You (Establishing the Protagonist)

In this initial stage, you’re not merely introducing your protagonist; you’re painting a detailed portrait of their ordinary life. You’re creating a character that the audience can relate to, empathize with, and invest in emotionally. You delve into their background, personality, values, quirks, and innermost desires. You’re essentially laying the groundwork for a strong emotional connection between the audience and the character.

Step 2: Need (Establishing Desire and Discontent)

The “need” stage isn’t just about showing what the character lacks; it’s about delving deep into their emotional state. You’re not just highlighting a superficial desire but rather exploring the underlying discontent, longing, or even pain that drives them. This discontent becomes a powerful motivator, and the audience should feel the character’s yearning for change on a profound level. Motivation is the key that drives the character’s actions; everything else is texture.

Step 3: Go (Inciting Incident and Point of No Return)

In this stage, the inciting incident is not just any random event that propels the character into action, it’s a pivotal moment that fundamentally alters the character’s trajectory. It’s the point of no return, where the character makes a conscious choice to step out of their comfort zone and into the unknown. This choice is often a reflection of their need and is laden with uncertainty, fear, or excitement.

Step 4: Search (The Hero’s Journey Begins)

The “search” phase is not merely a series of random challenges; it’s the hero’s journey in its truest sense. The challenges and obstacles the character faces are not just hurdles to overcome; they are tests of the character’s values, beliefs, and resolve. Each challenge is a crucible that forges the character’s growth, and the audience should witness their transformation with each trial.

Step 5: Find (Discovery and Revelation)

When your character finds something, it’s not a mere plot device but a profound moment of discovery or revelation. It’s a turning point in the story where the character gains insight, knowledge, or an object of significance. This discovery isn’t just a random occurrence; it’s the result of the character’s choices, actions, and evolving perspective.

Step 6: Take (Climax and Decision)

The “take” stage is not just about a dramatic climax; it’s the culmination of the character’s development arc. The decision the character makes is not just a matter of plot convenience but a reflection of their growth and transformation. It’s a pivotal moment where the character confronts their inner demons, faces their fears, and demonstrates the lessons they’ve learned on their journey.

Step 7: Return (Reintegration and Reflection)

As your character returns to their ordinary world, it’s not a simple return to the status quo; it’s a complex process of reintegration. The character must grapple with how they’ve changed and how their ordinary world has changed in their absence. This stage isn’t just an epilogue; it’s an opportunity for reflection, reconciliation, and, at times, further challenges.

Step 8: Change (Transformation and Resolution)

The “change” stage isn’t a mere footnote; it’s the heart of your story’s emotional impact. The character’s transformation isn’t superficial but a deep, meaningful evolution of their character. It’s not just about resolving their initial need; it’s about the profound shift in their perspective, values, or identity. This transformation is what gives your story lasting resonance with the audience.

In essence, the Dan Harmon Story Circle is not a rigid template but a flexible framework that enables you to craft narratives of profound depth and emotional resonance. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a one-size-fits-all and this technique may not apply to all kinds of stories, especially those that involve multiple plot lines or non linear telling. 

Example of the Story Circle

To understand how the Story Circle works, let’s see its application to the popular Sci Fi Adventure movie, Interstellar, by Christopher Nolan.

Story Circle StageScene Reference in Interstellar
1. The You (Establish the Protagonist)Cooper is introduced as a former NASA pilot and farmer.
2. Need (Establish Desire and Discontent)Discontent is established due to Earth’s environmental crisis, and Cooper’s desire is to save humanity and ensure a future for his children.
3. Go (Inciting Incident and Point of No Return)Cooper is recruited by NASA and embarks on a mission through a wormhole, marking the point of no return.
4. Search (The Hero’s Journey Begins)Cooper and his team journey through the wormhole, encountering challenges and exploring new planets in search of a new habitable world.
5. Find (Discovery and Revelation)They discover multiple planets, each with its unique challenges, and gain insights into the nature of time and gravity.
6. Take (Climax and Decision)The climax involves a critical decision to send data back to Earth and Cooper’s courageous entry into a black hole to gather essential information.
7. Return (Reintegration and Reflection)Cooper’s return to Earth is complicated by time dilation, resulting in his aging relative to Earth time. He reunites with his now-adult daughter and reflects on the sacrifices made during his journey.
8. Change (Transformation and Resolution)The film concludes with Cooper’s transformation and his decision to continue exploring new worlds, seeking to reunite with Amelia Brand.
Interstellar Story Structure

More: Detailed breakdown of the plot of Interstellar

Why is it a Story “Circle”?

The use of circle as a shape is not arbitary; it is used to symbolize the cyclical and transformative nature of storytelling and human experiences. Stories often follow a pattern where characters begin in one state, undergo challenges and growth, and return to a different state, having changed. This circular structure reinforces the idea of continuous character development, reflecting the recurring themes and challenges found in life.

That brings us to the end of this blogpost! You can outline your story and screenplay using your own method or some of the popular storytelling formats using Scrite.