Dan Harmon, The Hero’s Journey, and the Circle Theory of Story

From the archives, a February 2012 post featuring Dan Harmon’s ‘circle theory’ of Story. I’ve updated it with a video featuring Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey and a detailed explanation of Harmon’s take.

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Dan Harmon

I suspect we have many fans of the TV series “Community” and “Rick and Morty”, so my guess is there will be a lot of interest in this Wired article featuring the show’s creator Dan Harmon. It’s a long piece so let me zero in on Harmon’s approach to the story-crafting process:

The circles are everywhere, if you know to look for them. They’re on the whiteboards around Dan Harmon’s office, on sheets tacked to his walls, on a notepad on the floor of his car. Each one is hand-drawn and divided into quadrants with scribbled notes and numbers sprouting along the edges. They look like little targets.

Harmon, 38, is the creator of Community, a sitcom about a group of community-college study buddies and the most giddily experimental show on network TV. He began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process — to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

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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

Harmon calls his circles embryos — they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story — and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

“Star Wars,” then sit-coms? That guy Joseph Campbell missed his calling! Should’ve been a Hollywood writer. Here are a few versions of Campbell’s ‘circles’. First, the 17 stages of The Hero’s Journey as laid out in Campbell’s book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”:

Here is another circle representation with a simplified 12-stage version:

And here is an even more basic version of The Hero’s Journey:

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There’s value in each version and there are endless iterations, such as what Harmon has done with the show “Community.” From a screenwriting perspective, the goal is not to use The Hero’s Journey as a formula. That just results in formulaic scripts. Rather it is to use these ideas as tools to dig into your story and find its soul, then its structure. The plot should arise from the characters. Which sounds just like how Dan Harmon approaches his story-crafting process.

Here is a video which goes into detail explaining Harmon’s circle theory:

For more of the article, go here.

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