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When writing a screenplay, one of the most important things to understand is story structure. Knowing how to formulate a beginning, middle, and end into a compelling script is essential to keeping you on track as you write and integral to keeping readers interested.
Because of this, many different methods for organizing screenplays and stories are used. From Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet to Robert McKee’s Story Triangle, there are many ways to deconstruct, organize, and make sense of a script.
If you are looking for a new guide to organize your narrative, the Dan Harmon Story Circle is a modern, concise method. It is direct, streamlined, and does a great job of illuminating any shortcomings or missing beats in your story.
What Is The Dan Harmon Story Circle?
The Dan Harmon Story Circle is a method for organizing a script created by Dan Harmon (Community and Rick and Morty). It consists of eight beats that serve as signposts for your story while bringing the protagonist’s journey full circle.
The Story Circle is extremely streamlined and is a great way to get started on an idea. Given Dan Harmon’s career of success in TV, it isn’t surprising that the Story Circle is easily applicable to episodic content.
If you’re aware of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the Story Circle format will appear very familiar. If not, that’s okay too. The eight beats of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle are as follows;
1) A Character is in a Comfort Zone
2) But They Need or Desire Something
3) They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation
4) They 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
Using the Story Circle helps ensure you answer some important questions about your script. You will have a character and their natural state, as well as a driving need. The unfamiliar situation serves as a source of conflict, and the adaptation is the protagonist fighting to overcome it.
The fifth beat is often a midpoint and false victory before realizing that they still have to deal with the consequences of their actions. At the end of the script, our protagonist returns to their familiar situation, often victorious, having learned a life lesson, or both.
Why Use The Story Circle
Much like the Hero’s Journey or a beat sheet, using the Story Circle is a great way to lay out a story before you start writing the script. It assists with pacing and develops a compelling arc.
Almost all scripts fit into this format. Even if you’re telling a more abstract story, there is generally a beginning, middle, and end, and it is important to have emotional variation. A false victory or defeat in the midpoint and a transition between comfort and conflict are extremely effective ways to captivate an audience.
The Story Circle is by no means a complete outline, though. After completing the story circle, there will still be a lot of questions to answer. Instead, think of the Story Circle as a framework to build the script around.
Things To Look Out For
As stated above, don’t assume that the eight beats of the Story Circle are all you need to finish a script. After writing all these out, it will be beneficial to complete an outline and treatment for your story.
It is also important to understand that you don’t need to force yourself to match each beat of the Story Circle perfectly. Your character doesn’t necessarily have to be comfortable at the beginning of your script, fully adapt to an uncomfortable situation, or get what they want at the midpoint.
Instead, think of these as suggestions. It’s important to have act breaks and transitional moments, which Dan Harmon’s Story Circle provides.
The way your story is formatted, transitions between scenes, and how your protagonist behaves will always be up to you. Whenever using a framework to outline a script, always ask what’s best for the story.
Story Circle Example
To clarify the Dan Harmon Story Circle more, I will briefly go over the eight beats applied to The Matrix (1999). Some movies and TV will fit into this framework better than others. However, in almost any instance, parallels can be drawn.
1) A Character is in a Zone of Comfort; Neo lives in a reality he understands, though it is unknowingly false.
2) But They Want Something; After learning of the true nature of the world, Neo seeks understanding at his own risk.
3) They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation; Neo meets Morpheus, wakes up in his body, and is taken to the hovercraft.
4) Adapt to It; As Neo spars with Morpheus, meets the crew, and learns about the agents trying to catch them, he begins to find his footing in the world.
5) Get What They Wanted; Neo has to save Morpheus. He heads into the Matrix, storms the agents’ hideout, and rescues Morpheus. He realizes his power, but it might be too late…
6) Pay a Heavy Price For It; Cypher betrays neo. After rescuing Morpheus, the crew members are injured and killed, and Neo is stuck in the Matrix with no backup. He’s left to fight Agent Smith alone.
7) Then Return to Their Familiar Situation; However, Neo is resurrected in the Matrix with newfound powers when things seem to be at their worst. He stops Agent Smith’s bullets and blows up the bad guys.
8) Having Changed; After the climax, Neo is reunited with the crew knowing that he is ‘The One.’ Not only is he alive and in a position of relative comfort, but he is also poised to be humanity’s savior.
With this example, it is clear that the format doesn’t perfectly fit every film. Technically, Neo never returns to his familiar situation because that reality has shifted over the course of the film.
Still, the transition from comfort to chaos, back to a degree of normalcy, is a great way to ensure that your script has a clear ending and comes full circle. It’s also essential that your character has experienced some arc and changed by the end of the script.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a potent tool to use when starting a script. Whether it’s for a feature film, a short, or an episode of TV, the format can be applied to almost any piece of content.
It also closely mirrors plenty of other outline templates, and for good reason. The Story Circle clearly establishes a beginning, middle, and end and provides your protagonist with a compelling arc.
It’s important never to get too caught up with trying to force a story into a template. Writing is not a formula, and you have to maintain your voice and creativity as you structure your script.
Let these templates inspire you and prompt you to think more about your story. If you’re not hitting one of the steps laid out, ask yourself why. Is it because you forgot, or because you have a strong reason not to? The more intentional you can be with your decision making the better.
Have you ever used the Dan Harmon Story Circle template? What about the Hero’s Journey? Let us know in the comments below what outlining methods you like, and good luck with your next script!
Cade Taylor is a filmmaker and writer based out of Los Angeles. Originally from Seattle, he continues to work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Bigfoot Script Challenge, where he helps connect up-and-coming writers with industry professionals. When he’s not working on his own projects, helping out with Bigfoot, or covering desks, Cade loves to share what he knows with other filmmakers and promote great content.