The Story Circle in Action

In my last article, I explored Dan Harmons Story Circle. If you haven’t read that article, click here [LINK] or watch the video here[LINK]. Today, we’re going to look at an example of the Story Circle in action. I’m going to end the article with a small scene of my own to show just how versatile this method can be.  

Let’s get into it.

The Story Circle in Action

I hope you can see the power of this method by now, but we can take it even further. Because the Story Circle doesn’t just work on your story as a whole, it can also work on each part of your story. 

The same structure that makes a good story can also make a good act in a story. Let’s consider the first half of the second act of “The Fellowship,” which begins as the hobbits leave The Shire.

Zone of Comfort. Our hero is Frodo. That’s the character we want the audience to relate to.Frodo wants to escape the Ringwraiths and deliver the Ring to Elrond.

They want something. Frodo wants to escape the Ringwraiths and deliver the Ring to Elrond.

They enter an unfamiliar situation. This is what our story is about, so who’s in our movie poster? A terrified Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam stare uncertainly at something over their shoulder. Aragorn appears as a shadowy figure and we don’t know if he’s a friend or foe. The Nine are seen charging through the mist in the background.  

They adapt to their situation. This is where the Hobbits cross the Brandywine and reach the town of Bree.  

They get what they wanted. We have our “meeting the Goddess” moment when the Hobbits meet Aragorn in the Prancing Pony. Just don’t tell Aragorn I called him a Goddess.  

They pay a price. The Hobbits have received their second call to adventure and follow Aragorn. He leads them to Weathertop where a Ringwraith stabbed Frodo with the Morgul Blade.

They return to a familiar situation. Frodo is once again being pursued by the Ringwraiths. Here we have a chase scene between Arwen and the Nine as she rushes Frodo to safety across the Bruinen River.  

They are changed.  Obviously, the full transformation hasn’t happened yet. But Frodo and the other Hobbits are beginning to understand the full reality of their situation. This could also be counted as a return to the Normal World since everyone is now present. 

The Hobbits are together, Gandalf is back, Aragorn is there and Frodo has even been reunited with Bilbo.

But we don’t need to stop there. I won’t get too deep into the weeds with examples on this, but we could do the same thing for each chapter. Or each scene within a chapter. You could even structure an entire dialogue scene with this method. Let’s whip one together now as an exercise.

Sheila sat across from Jim, who slumped silently over his mashed potatoes. 

He hardly greeted her when he came home. After barely a peck on the cheek, he grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat heavily before his plate at the table. 

“Jim, can you pass the salt?”

“How can I pass it if it’s not on the table? Put it on next time.”

“It’s right in front of you. Open your eyes!”

“Oh.” Jim slid the salt over to her. It bumped against her plate and tipped over, spilling on the table.

“What’s wrong with you? You’ve been out of sorts since you got home. You can either tell me what your problem is or I’ll get the couch ready for you tonight.”

Jim didn’t meet her gaze. He stared absently into his peas, mashing them into his potatoes.  

“I was fired.”

“What? Jim… Oh, I’m sorry. That job meant everything to you.”

“Yeah. Some kid fresh out of college will be in my office by Monday.”  

Jim barely touched his food. He took a few modest mouthfuls in the silence between them, but never tasted any of it on its way down.

“Listen, Jim,” Sheila reached across the table and took his hand in hers. “Maybe it’s time for us to make that change we talked about. That acreage on the coast? We have some savings, maybe it’s time to cash them in. We could talk to that realtor tomorrow.”

Jim met her eyes for the first time since he sat down.

“I’m sorry, Sheila. But yeah. That might be nice.”

Okay, If I pulled it off that should be the entire circle in one short conversation. Let’s see how I did.  

The Zone of comfort. In the first paragraph, Jim has just arrived home from work and Sheila, his wife has dinner on the table for him. 

But something is off. He barely acknowledges her and seems deflated. 

They want something. “Jim, can you pass the salt?”  Sheila wants the salt… but does she really? Her husband has been aloof since he got home. 

She asks for the salt, but what she really wants is to re-establish her connection with Jim.

They enter an unfamiliar situation. “How can I pass the salt if it’s not on the table? Put it on next time.”  Jim has pulled away from Sheila. He snips at her instead of confessing the source of his frustration to her.  

They adapt to their situation.  “It’s right in front of you. Open your eyes!” 

To which Jim replies, “Oh,” and indifferently slides it across the table to her. 

They get what they want.  Sheila gets the salt, but not in the way she wants as it spills on the table. She also gets a connection, but not the connection she wants as it comes in the form of indignation from her husband.  “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been out of sorts since you got home. Either tell me what’s wrong or I’ll get the couch ready for you tonight.”

They pay a price. They discover Jim lost his job.  “I was fired.”  Jim regrets being so aloof and snippy with Sheila and she feels sorry for him after losing a job he loved. 

They return to a familiar situation.  “Listen, Jim… Maybe it’s time for us to make that change we talked about. That acreage on the coast? We have some savings, maybe it’s time to cash them in.  We could talk to that realtor tomorrow.”

They return to civil tones and Sheila extends an olive branch by suggesting that they consider moving to an acreage on the coast, as they discussed in an earlier moment off scene.

They are changed.  Jim meets Sheila’s gaze and their relationship is restored. More than that, they now have a plan for the future and hope.  “I’m sorry, Sheila. But yeah. That might be nice.”

There you have it. I couldn’t quite compress it into eight lines of dialogue, but I’m happy with how close I came.  

So how far could you take this? As far as you want, hypothetically. You could write an entire story in only eight to ten words. I wouldn’t, but it might be useful as an exercise or to brainstorm story ideas. 

And you don’t need to get this particular over each act, chapter, scene, passage or line of dialogue. It all depends on how into the weeds you want to get with your plotting.    

Or, on a more macro level, you could use the Circle to plot an entire series.  

Harry Potter and the Circle of Mastery

Okay, that book never happened. But it totally should have with a title like that. My point is that we can even see elements of the Story Circle at play in the Harry Potter Series as a whole.  

The Sorcerers Stone

Zone of Comfort. Our hero is Harry. That’s the character we want the audience to relate to. 

They want something.  Harry wants an escape from his life with the abusive Dursleys. He wants a life of significance and importance. He finds it at Hogwarts, where he makes friends, learns magic and discovers the truth of his parents and Lord Voldemort. He also wants to know more about how his parents died and desperately longs to see them.

The Chamber of Secrets

They enter an unfamiliar situation. This is essentially the end of the first act of our series. Who’s in our movie poster? Most of the cast is set. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in the foreground, wands out, staring defiantly at the audience. The regular teachers of Hogwarts stand over Harry’s right shoulder, except for Snape. 

A gallery of Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers stand over his left shoulder. Dumbledore stands behind Harry, ever watchful, while The Dark Lord looms opposite him. Snape stands shrouded in mist between the two.  

The Prisoner of Azkaban

They adapt to their situation. It’s the trio’s third year and they’re old hats at Hogwarts. They know the main players, who they can trust, who they can’t, and how to navigate these dangers. It’s here that Harry acquires the Marauders Map, which allows him to adapt and navigate the halls of Hogwarts even more masterfully than before. 

The Goblet of Fire

They get what they want. All his life Harry has been yearning for a life of significance. Now he gets it in spades when he’s chosen, against his will, to participate in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Here we have a small, budding romance between Harry and Cho Chang. We also have our “Meeting with the Goddess” moment in the cemetery in Little Hangleton. This is when Voldemort returns and fills Harry in on more of his history. We also learn about how he was able to defeat Voldemort at such a young age and the role his mothers’ sacrifice played. 

He also gets to meet his parents, as he’d always wanted, though not in a way he had wanted. When Harry and Voldemort’s wands connected, he was able to meet an apparition of his parents when the phenomenon “Priori Incantatem” forced Voldemort’s wand to reveal the last spells it had conjured. Since the last spell it had conjured was the curse that had killed Harry’s parents, they manifested from the wand.

The Order of the Phoenix

They pay a price. We’ve passed the midpoint and are in the last half of the second act. This is where Harry gets his second call to action from Sirius Black, his godfather. Up until this point in the story, Harry was just a passenger on the journey. Now he takes the wheel by expressing a desire to join the Order of the Phoenix to stop Voldemort. We also pay a steep price at this point when Sirius is killed.

The Half-Blood Prince

They return to a familiar situation.  The Dark Lord is rising, as he had before, and things are getting bad at Hogwarts. This is where Snape reveals his hand and we have a confrontation between him and Harry in the Pre-Climax of the series after Snape kills Dumbledore. 

The Deathly Hallows  

They are changed. The trio, and the rest of the students and faculty of Hogwarts, are still reeling from the death of Dumbledore. 

This is the calm before the storm as we build to the climax of the series. The climax of the series is now the same as the climax of the book, being the duel between Harry and Voldemort after the Battle of Hogwarts.  

The book still has a Pre-Climax of its own, being the Battle of Hogwarts. That remains unchanged. But the Pre-Climax of the series is the death of Dumbledore. 

A Plotters Paradise or a Pantsers Waystone

As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you use it on a micro or macro level. Dan Harmons Story Circle is an incredibly robust tool, no matter how you use it. It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of overlap between plot points on the micro and macro level. For example, the climax of “The Half-Blood Prince,” is when Harry confronts Snape. But this is only the pre-climax of the series as a whole. The confrontation with Voldemort in the cemetery in “The Goblet of Fire,” was the climax of the book. But it was only the meeting with the goddess moment of the series. 

How deep you go with this depends on you. You don’t need to take 6 years to write your novel as Tolstoy did with “War and Peace.” But you could. You don’t need to take 14 years to write your novel as Rand did with “Atlas Shrugged.” But you could. Do you want to spend 20 years pouring over each line of your magnum opus, polishing it to perfection? You don’t need to, but you can. Or you could be like Stephen King and pants your way to proliferation. They’re both valid strategies. 

Only you can decide which one is right for you. But even pantsers need a little structure here and there. When you do, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle method is definitely worth a try.

That’s it for this article. Thanks for reading.

Good Writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!