Structuring Your Script with the Dan Harmon Story Circle

tumblr_me6eh0wcMR1rwq0obo1_500The Dan Harmon Story Circle may be the best thing since the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Harmon’s work, he’s the creator of the innovative comedy series Community and was the head writer on The Sarah Silverman Program.

Harmon has a theory of story that he built off of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The basic idea is quite simple:

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Here we go, down and dirty:

  1. . A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. . But they want something.
  3. . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. . Adapt to it,
  5. . Get what they wanted,
  6. . Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. . Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. . Having changed.

Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

On his elegantly named Tumbler blog, Dan Harmon Poops, Dan uses this idea to break down an episode of Community, specifically the Dungeons and Dragons episode:

If I were to take a stab at the episode’s “quadrants” in terms of general plot…and forgive me, I could really screw this up without watching the episode again, but here’s an EXAMPLE at me taking a stab, you can do this on your own and refine it.

Upper half = The Game is a Game

Lower half = The Game is Real

Left half = Pierce in Control

Right half = Abed in Control

The more important use of quadrants is in creating or checking for what the suits call “arcs.”  You go through the story in the shoes of any particular character and ask yourself what’s changing from top to bottom and from right to left as they move through the plot.  Here’s some possible upper and lower halves choosing Jeff as the protagonist:

– In Control / Out of Control

– Altruism / Guilt

– Pierce is a child / Pierce is a threat

All of those and more might be valid, it’s all subjective, but my favorite is:

– Altruism / Guilt

When I draw a line between “altruism” and “guilt,” the idea that there’s a difference sparks my interest.  Sometimes we want to help people because we’re good people and sometimes we want to help people because we don’t want to be bad people.  To someone else, there’s no distinction there, but it only needs to be visible to the writer.  To me, the arrival of Pierce, who kills Chang and runs off with Fat Neil’s sword, ushers Jeff across a threshold between altruism and guilt, yanking him from a world in which he was “fixing” Neil and tossing him into a world in which he may end up responsible for Neil’s destruction if he “loses” the game. (Read the rest of the breakdown here.)

A fan of Harmon’s, Chris Woo, has taken the circle a step further and broken it down into a cosine wave. If your brain doesn’t like circles, this might feel like a more appropriate laid out story arc:

Hegel_zps608ee3e8

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