Dan Harmons Story Circle

Previously, I discussed the Three Act Structure most western media is based on. In my last article, I gave a list of alternatives to the Three Act Structure. I’m continuing the plotting series by focusing on one of the alternatives, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.

Let’s get into it.

A Brilliantly Simple Idea

I wish I could take credit for inventing it. It’s the brainchild of Dan Harmon who created hit shows like “Community” and “Rick and Morty”.

Before we continue, he did envision this method with screenwriting in mind. I don’t think that needs to put anyone off if we aren’t screenwriters. His techniques can apply as well to the budding novelist. More, in fact, since we have a larger canvas to work from. The average screenplay is only 90-120 pages long which isn’t a lot of time to get your point across. As novelists, we have 300 or 400 pages to do the same job and, dare I say, we do it better. After all, everyone knows the book is better than the movie. You could use an even greater canvas if you wrote a 500 page beast of a book and the outcome would be better yet.

His premise is that every story can be expressed in 8 essential steps. I’ve noticed that these steps still have many elements of the Heroes Journey.  Though in a simpler form. You could begin with the Story Circle and enrich your experience with it by gradually including elements of the Heroes Journey.

A Brief Review of Structure

First, I would like to have a brief review of the Three Act Structure (TAS). I go into much more detail on the TAS, and its alternatives, in my articles and videos on the TAS, so I won’t here. But I want to have a brief review since the TAS and Story Circle marry quite nicely. I’ll get more into that near the end of the article.

Most stories in western media contain 3 acts. An act is a section of the story that divides the action and is centred around one or more plot points. A plot point is an action that directly influences what happens next in the story.

In the first act, we establish the normal world of the hero and offer exposition to establish the world and the story. The first act ends with an inciting incident that draws the hero into the main action of the story.

In the second act, we have the rising action which leads to a midpoint and crisis. The second act usually ends with a turning point where it looks like the hero and his allies will fail.

The third act leads us to the Pre-Climax and the Climax. The hero and his allies have reached the point of no return.  This is where they must either prevail or perish, and this is where some of them do perish. Key allies are lost at this point. Then the story winds down in what’s known as the denouement. This is where the life of the hero returns to normal.

The first act takes about the first quarter of the story. The second act takes about half and the third act takes the final quarter or so of the story. Most novels have 10-12 chapters, but you can have as many as you like. For the sake of easy math, I’ll say we are writing a book with 10 chapters. That means that 2-3 chapters will be in act 1. 5-7 chapters will be in the second act and 2-3 chapters will be in the third act.

The Story Circle

Now, that we have a birds-eye understanding of the three-act structure, let’s look at the 8 stages of Harmon’s Story Circle.

  1. Zone of Comfort
  2. They want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. They adatp to their new situation
  5. They get what they want
  6. They pay a price
  7. They return to their familiar situation
  8. They are changed from the journey

In a three-act story structure, stages 1 and 2 would fall into Act 1, stages 3-6 would fall into Act 2, and stages 7 and 8 would fall into Act 3. You may notice that, if we are plotting a three-act story, we have a very rough plot already.

Let’s break those down a bit using “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” as a guide

Stage 1-Zone of Comfort

In stage one the hero is in his normal world. This stage can be condensed into the word “you.” The “you” refers to the audience. They want to identify with a character which is why they are reading your book. They will default to the first character you show them, but they will have a greater connection with one they have pity for.

In The Fellowship, this is Frodo in the Shire preparing for his uncle’s birthday.

Stage 2-They want something

Every character needs something. In his book, “Stein on Writing,” writer, editor and publisher, Sol Stein, says that you should always make your character need something. They should need it urgently and as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they’re desperate for it. Even a glass of water will do.

Frodo loves his idyllic life in the Shire, but part of him seeks adventure. You see this more in the book than the movie. The book highlights the fact that Frodo was part Took and a distant relative of Peregrin Took. Thus, while he loved the peace and quiet of the Shire, he also had a suppressed, Tookish longing for adventure. On a grander scale, Gandalf informs Frodo that he possesses the Ring of Power and warns him of its danger. Often the hero initially refuses the call to adventure here, and so does Frodo. Again, more in the books than the movie.

In the movie, Frodo’s flight from the Shire was a hurried affair.  Frodo bolted out the door with the Nazgul hot on his tail. But in the book, Frodo gets a visit from Gandalf and learns he possesses the One Ring on April 13. Rather than a hurried flight from the Shire, Frodo didn’t embark for Rivendell until September 23, the day after his 50th birthday. That’s a full six months of hemming and hawing before Gandalf was able to get him moving with a gentle kick in the pants.

And in a three-act structure, this would be the end of act one.

Stage 3-They enter an unfamiliar situation

This is where we find out what the story is about. If there are aliens or killer robots, this is where we meet them. If it’s a RomCom, this is where we would have the “meet-cute.” The point is that whatever our story is about starts here. Before this point, our characters are going about their day oblivious to what’s about to befall them.

One good tip is to imagine that your story is going to become a movie and draw the movie poster in your mind. The movie poster is a snapshot of this point in your story.

Since we’re using “The Fellowship of the Ring” as our example, let’s look at the poster for the movie. What do you see? The first thing you see is Frodo with a look of dread foreboding on his face. There are many moments they could have chosen in the movie, why that one? At this point, at the end of Act 1 and beginning of Act 2, he learned he possessed the One Ring and was responsible as its bearer.

We also see Merry, Sam and Pippin over his shoulder. When do they join him? At the beginning of Act 2, when he starts his voyage out of the shire. We see the rest of the Fellowship as well. We see Aragorn, who joins him in Bree, Gandalf, who sets him on the journey, and Legolas and Gimli who he meets in Act 2, although later. We also see Arwen, introduced early in Act 2, and Galadriel. You may also notice that we see a lone Orc blowing his horn below Galadriel. The Orcs don’t begin their chase until the beginning of Act 2.

Who else do we see? At the bottom of the poster, we see The Nine. The mounted Ringwraiths with swords drawn and in full pursuit. When are they introduced? That’s right. We see them at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second.

What we are dealing with here is also a journey into our subconscious mind. In Act 1 we discover the protagonist’s secret longing. He or she may seem happy, but we learn of a secret desire they have that isn’t being fulfilled. Act 2 is when the ego manifests and those desires are fulfilled. For Frodo, who secretly longed for adventure, he gets it in spades here.

Stage 4-They adapt to their situation

In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell, this is the “Road of Trials.”

Don’t confuse this with a training phase. It can include a training phase, but it’s so much more. This is where the hero is thrust into the deep end and needs to sink or swim. In “The Fellowship” this is when the Hobbits are being chased by the Ringwraiths in the forest.  To escape, Frodo needs to leap onto the Buckleberry Ferry to cross the Brandywine River.

This is where we strip all our protagonists’ illusions away from them. They’re in the thick of it now and no amount of pipeweed, pilfered mushrooms, or the Gaffers homebrew can save them. Everything they thought they knew is worthless and stripped away. As we dive deeper into the subconscious, the protagonists need to shed all the dead weight they were carrying up to this point. They need to either adapt to their new world or die trying.

Frodo grew up enthralled by Bilbo and his tales of high adventure, longing for his own someday. Now he learns what “adventure” really means.

Stage 5-They Get what they wanted

“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” calls this “Meeting with the Goddess.”

This is something of a respite for our protagonists. It’s important to think of these steps as points on a circle. We’ve been moving around that circle for the duration of the story and each point on the circle has a counterpoint on the other side. At this point, we are at the bottom of the circle, in a place of relative comfort. Since this is the midpoint of the story, the middle of the second act, the counterpoint for stage five is stage one. Another zone of comfort. Like stage one, this is another stage where certain revelations are made. From here every action will be moving up the circle and back toward the protagonists’ normal world.

This is a place where anything goes. It’s a time for deep revelations and complete vulnerability.

In “The Fellowship,” this is where Frodo and the Hobbits arrive at Rivendell. Frodo finally meets with Gandalf, who fills him in on why he couldn’t meet him at the Prancing Pony. He also speaks with Bilbo and learns more about his adventures and his involvement with the Ring.  And, of course, this is where we have the Council of Elrond.

And, since this is a safe space, if there’s any romance this is where you do it. In “The Fellowship,” this is where Aragorn reconnects with Arwen, and she gives him the Evenstar.

It’s also important to note that the “Goddess” doesn’t always need to be a deity or even female. That’s an archetype. In this context, Elrond is the “Goddess.” But it could also be a weapon, tool, ally, an idea, or a revelation.

 Elrond is a type of the “Goddess.”  We could also say that Sting, the Evenstar or even the history of Gondor  could be a meeting with the “Goddess.”

This is also where the hero makes an important decision to either continue or end the journey. At the Council of Elrond, it’s decided that the Ring must go to Mordor, but that doesn’t mean Frodo must. As far as he was concerned, his part in the journey had ended.  He had no more obligation to go any further. He made a choice to continue after seeing how the Ring was corrupting the hearts of the council members.

Stage 6-They pay a price

Remember this model is a circle. Every point has a counterpoint in the story from here on in. In Stage 1 it was the Zone of Comfort or The Natural World. The counterpoint for Stage 6 is Stage 2, which ends with a call to action. With this model, you could almost think of our novel as having two separate stories. In the first half, we are trying to get to the midpoint, Stage 5. From that point, as we received a call to action at the end of Stage 2, we receive another call to action at the end of Stage 6. The point of this (second) road of trials is to get the protagonist back to the Zone of Comfort.

You’ll also remember that the end of this stage is the end of Act 2, where we lose key allies. That’s why we pay a heavy price at this stage. In Stage 2 of the journey, Gandalf gave Frodo the call to action which sets him on the Road of Trials. By the end of Stage 6, he loses Gandalf to the Balrog.

Stage 7-The y return to their familiar situation

Now we’re deep into Act 3 and the start of the denouement of the story. But just because the story is winding down, that doesn’t mean the action needs to. The denizens of the Road of Trials don’t want the hero to pass, and this is where they launch a last-ditch effort to stop him. This is a great place for one last car chase or a dive through the flames to save a crying baby.  Even for someone to stop their lover from leaving by pounding on the windows of the train as it pulls out of the station.

In “The Fellowship,” this is immediately after The Fellowship loses Gandalf and are attacked by Orcs in the woods. Boromir tries to take the Ring, cementing in Frodo’s mind that he alone must bear the Ring to Mordor. Boromir also dies in battle, in penance for his attempted thievery of the Ring.

Stage 8-They are changed

This is where the protagonist transforms and becomes the master of both worlds. The hero faces one final showdown before returning to the Normal World. We need to remind the readers what happened in the previous stages of the journey. Remember, when in doubt about how to proceed at any point along the circle, look at the opposite point on the circle. The opposite point of Stage 8 is Stage 4. What happens in Stage 4?

Stage 4 is the Road of Trials, where the hero must adapt to the New World. By the end of stage 8, he should be adapted and master of both. This may mean using a gift given to him in Stage 4 or demonstrating his mastery another way.

So, where does this leave us with Frodo? Doesn’t he run away with Sam at the end and leave his friends to fight the Orcs by themselves? Doesn’t that spoil the plot?

No. Once you realize what’s happening, you see that things aren’t falling apart. They’re falling into place.

The nice thing about the Story Circle structure is that it’s not absolute. It’s quite flexible, actually. You can leave out, or overlap, certain parts and if you don’t cut too much it will still be recognizable as a story.

This is a metaphorical return home. Frodo will get his physical return eventually.  But for now, his return comes in the form of Samwise Gamgee. Sam acts as a small patch of The Shire. His friendship keeps Frodo sane as they continue their march on the wastes of Mordor. In this way, Frodo has spiritually returned home.

This is also where we see the greatest change in the character. The dross has burned away and he knows what’s important. Frodo understands the consequences if Sauron gets his hands on the ring and how it corrupts the hearts of everyone near it. He can’t trust anyone to help him but one stalwart friend. Not only must he destroy the Ring, but he must do it alone.

That’s it for now. In the next article, we’re going to put the Story Circle into action and see how versatile this remarkable tool is. I’ll also have a crack at it and write an original scene for you using the Circle as a template.

I’ll see you there.

Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior.