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August 11, 2022

Breaking Down The Matrix According to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, may very well be the most influential film of the 1990s, still defining Hollywood films to this day. Besides being an incredible piece of filmmaking, the script is considered one of the tightest ever written. No surprise, given that the Wachowskis went through fourteen drafts. If you are an aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter, this script is a must-read! So, let’s break down The Matrix according to its screenwriting structure which utilizes Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.

Free screenplay for The Matrix

Don't forget to check out our free screenplay to The Matrix. Download it here. This will make it much easier to follow along with our breakdown. Play close attention to the characters, formatting and plot.

The Matrix has you

The Matrix was written and directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (then credited as Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski). It starred Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving, and was released in 1999.

It’s become such a staple in popular culture, that it’s hard to remember that The Matrix was actually a bit of a sleeper hit. The Wachowskis were not well known, and it didn’t open big. But it had great word of mouth, and stayed in theaters, allowing it to gain an audience and following. (The conversation around Everything Everywhere All At Once has been similar.)

Eventually spawning three direct sequels, not to mention video games and animated shorts within the world, The Matrix has become one of the dominant sci-fi IPs of the new millennium.

What is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle?

Devised by Dan Harmon (creator of Community and Rick and Morty) the Story Circle is a relatively simple framework for a story. It’s intentionally vague in its details, providing ample room for understanding and exploration within the guidelines provided.

Here’s the framework:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort
  2. They desire something
  3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. They adapt to the situation
  5. They get what they desired
  6. But pay a heavy price for it
  7. They return to their familiar situation
  8. Having changed

Only eight steps in length, it’s best represented graphically because, as the name implies, it’s a circle.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle breakdown of The Matrix

1 - You

A character is in a zone of comfort,

Thomas Anderson lives his life as a software engineer, moonlighting as a hacker known as Neo.

2 - Need

But they want something.

He has a nagging suspicion that something is not “right” about the world. He needs to understand what this is, and he senses that it is connected to someone known as Morpheus.

3 - Go

So they enter an unfamiliar situation,

So when invited, Neo meets Morpheus, who tells him that the world he lives in is not real. It is a computer simulation, and he is “The One” who is going to save all of humanity from this prison designed by machines.

4 - Search

Adapt to it,

Neo begins to learn the rules of the Matrix. He trains in martial arts. He begins to learn of his relationship with his “destiny.”

5 - Find

Get what they wanted,

Neo has come to understand what the Matrix is and begins to show great promise of understanding not only its rules but how to break them. To fully understand his role in everything, Neo is taken back into the Matrix to see The Oracle.

6 - Take

Pay a heavy price for it,

While there, Neo is told that he is not “The One,”, and Morpheus is taken prisoner. Neo has come to understand the truth about the Matrix and his destiny. It is not so unless he believes.

He returns to the Matrix to rescue Morpheus and does so, now believing, but he is killed in the process.

7 - Return

Then return to their familiar situation,

But he returns to life, within the Matrix (and therefore outside it, as well). He now has full control over his powers, and he truly is “The One.”

8 - Change

Having changed.

He can navigate the Matrix, but no longer with the nagging suspicion that something is wrong. No longer with the feeling that he isn’t free.

Neo and Trinity from The Matrix walking down a hallway holding weapons.
Neo and Trinity (Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss) are the main protagonists of The Matrix.

Key insights

Seeing how The Matrix fits into Dan Harmon’s Story Circle may initially at first seem like an odd fit. After all, Harmon is known for television. And Neo’s journey does not seem to fit the circle so easily;  so easily fit the full circle, he doesn’t go off into the wilderness to have an adventure. Rather, he learns that his life is the wilderness;, he just didn’t know it. Part of what this illustrates is that while Harmon’s Story Circle has roots in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, it is perhaps slightly more helpful for understanding internal journeys just as much as external ones.

This is particularly true in The Matrix, where Neo’s “return” can be a bit muddy. After all, he never truly, fully returns to the Matrix. At least not in the way that Cypher hopes to in his deal with Agent Smith. So it’s a good example of how the return and the change aren’t always literal.

In terms of “paying a heavy price,”, The Matrix has two compounding moments of this. First, Morpheus is taken. But that is a price that Neo is unwilling to pay, so he doubles down on his new belief in himself, and for that, he pays the ultimate price of his life.

The Matrix is a wonderful example of pulling the “heavy” out of “heavy price.” If Neo was so quickly willing to let Morpheus go, would the price have been that heavy? A protagonist so willing or eager to pay the price would feel false, and watching Neo engage with and fight with that price is what makes it feel earned, and ultimately sets up the even heavier price of his life itself.

One thing that Dan Harmon’s Story Circle doesn’t necessarily pull out so easily, at least in terms of breaking down The Matrix is the antagonist. The character’s journey in terms of what they want is highlighted, and since Neo’s is one of self-actualization, it is the plot that sets Agent Smith up as an obstacle rather than Agent Smith’s character himself. Harmon’s Story Circle doesn’t provide an explicit framework for obstacles or antagonists themselves, as you can see through the breakdown that doesn’t need to mention Agent Smith by name.

The Matrix screenplay download

Do you want to read a copy of The Matrix screenplay? Download it here!

Inner self is outer self

If there’s one screenwriting lesson in The Matrix, it’s this:

Neo’s inner and outer journeys are so intricately connected that it’s hard to separate them. He must grow to achieve his goals, and to achieve his goals; he must grow. That’s a tautology, but few films pull it off the way The Matrix does.

What do you think of The Matrix’s story structure? Would you change anything about the plot and its characters? If you’re ready to start your own mind-bending sci-fi film, get started today (for free!) with Arc Studio.

Good luck out there writers!


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 Breaking Down The Matrix According to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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