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February 14, 2022

Dan Harmon's Story Circle Explained: 8 Steps to a Better Screenplay

Are you stuck for ideas with your screenplay? Or worried that you are rambling all over the place? Then you might want to consider Dan Harmon's Story Circle technique as a helpful frame for writing your screenplay. Story-building doesn't have to be hard!

By following it, you can divide your screenplay into eight manageable chunks that move your story on and give your audience a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.

Who is Dan Harmon?

Dan Harmon is a prolific American screenwriter whose career began in the mid-1990s, but his first major show was the sitcom Community, based on his own experiences. Before moving to Yahoo! Online TV streaming service, this initially aired on NBC.

He is also credited with creating the animated comedy Rick and Morty, now approaching its sixth season.

Where did this screenwriting framework originate?

At the start of his career, Harmon was stuck on a script. He couldn't find his way through the plot, so he decided to go back to basics. Instead, he wanted to create a universal structure to ensure he could always plot his screenplays without getting bogged down.

Harmon researched the work of writer and academic Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987), who had studied the Hero's Journey narrative, suggesting that by and large, all narratives tell a similar story of an archetypical hero, merely "cloaked" in contemporary culture but which are ultimately timeless.

Harmon wanted to simplify this into a less academic process that screenwriters working in the industry could use in their day-to-day writing. Thus, he came up with his version, now known as Dan Harmon's Story Circle.

Dan Harmon's Story Circle explained in 8 steps

The circle represents your narrative's cyclical nature and opens the pathway to potential sequels.

Story Circle is broken down into 8 basic components:

1. The character is in their comfort zone

2. Character desires something

3. Character enters an unfamiliar situation

4. Character adapts to the situation

5. Character gets what they want

6. They pay a heavy price for it

7. Character returns to their familiar situation

8. They have changed as a result of their journey

Now that you have a basic understanding of this story framework, let's dive into each section in detail.

1. The character is in a comfort zone

In this part of your narrative, your hero is generally at home or in familiar surroundings and somewhat stuck in the pedestrian nature of their life. In the five-act structure, this part of the narrative is the exposition.

Consider Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs at the start of the Sorcerer's Stone, or Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game, at his mother's home, gambling all his money away and divorced from his daughter's mother. What is humdrum for your character? What makes their life dull and unsatisfying?

2.Your character desires something

Your main character should want to change the life they are living. Perhaps they are unhappy at college and desire to be popular.

In the case of Harry Potter, he desires to be away from his aunt and uncle and wants to know what happened to his parents.

In Squid Game, Seong Gi-hun desires excitement, a way out of his gambling debts, and the ability to see his daughter more frequently.

To understand your character's desires, you need to consider what they don't currently have at the start of the narrative and what drives them. Is it money, social status, power, companionship, a greater understanding of the world? Consider what could fulfill them both materialistically and spiritually. This is the basis of their journey.

3. Your character enters an unfamiliar situation

Your characters will need to enter an unfamiliar situation to get what they desire. Whether they enter this situation voluntarily or by circumstances outside their control is irrelevant.

Harry Potter is "rescued" by Hagrid from the Dursleys in the Sorcerer's Stone and is subsequently inducted into the Wizarding World and eventually Hogwarts, which is entirely unfamiliar to him. This makes him an outsider and puts him in a completely new environment.

Seong Gi-hun joins other gamblers on the island to compete for a vast sum of money. In stepping into this world, the financial inequality he experienced in the outside world is dispensed with. He receives the same meals and has the same chance of winning the money as the other players. The capitalist society's rules that have been so unkind to him are all but removed.

4. Your character adapts to the situation

In real life, significant change is often hard to stomach. Lottery winners often spend all their winnings within a few years and go back to everyday life.

In fiction, your characters have to adapt to their situation as part of their journey and undergo fundamental change by the end of the plot. This is timeless; consider the tribesmen sending their teenage sons out into the wilderness to fight tigers and ultimately "become a man."

Harry Potter embraces his new magical powers, making friends at Hogwarts and participating in activities like Quidditch.

Seong Gi-hun begins to enjoy the games he participates in, forming a little gang with other members and realizing that he is pretty skillful at winning the games.

How does your protagonist adapt to their newfound situation? How do you show this on screen? What friends do they make?

5. Your characters ultimately get what they want

Harry Potter's status as the only person to survive a killing curse and defeat Lord Voldermort as a child gives him newfound popularity at Hogwarts. Harry now has significant social standing instead of being a loner that no one cares about, continuously overshadowed by his cousin.

Rather than living like a poor person, he now also has money and the ability to buy things for himself after Hagrid takes him to his vault at Gringotts Bank to receive his parent's fortune.

In Squid Game, Seong Gi-hun first becomes an equal with the other players - as money is no longer an object while the games are being played. In contrast, previously, he was viewed as being at the bottom of society for having gambled all his money away.

What are the life goals and ambitions of your main character? This is part of the story where your audience thinks they will get a happily-ever-after.

6. They pay a heavy price for it

But the point of having your protagonist succeed in their ambitions and goals is to showcase that what they want has unexpected consequences that could be disastrous for them.  

The price of Harry Potter's introduction into the wizarding world is that he has to face the dark wizard who murdered his parents - Voldermort - where his anonymity would have otherwise protected him in the muggle world.

Seong Gi-hun faces having to watch and actively participate in the death of his fellow players to win the prize money.

Harry Potter and Voldemort face off in The Sorcerer's Stone.
Harry Potter faces off against the dark wizard that killed his parents, Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

7. The return to their familiar situation

Great narratives are cyclical; they take us back to the beginning.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone concludes with Harry getting on the Hogwarts Express to return to his aunt and uncle in the muggle world.

Seong Gi-hun leaves the island and the world of the games behind him to return to everyday life.

8. They have changed as a result of the journey

Although your characters have returned physically to where they began the story, they should have changed due to the narrative.

Harry Potter has an array of friends and supportive adults to help him navigate his abusive relationship with his aunt and uncle, and he now fits into the world, understanding why his parents were killed.

Seong Gi-hun has a fortune but also understands the sacrifices he has made for the money and, to some extent, realizes that it wasn't worth it and money itself is not that important. He now values his relationships with his daughter and ex-wife.

Consider what changes your character will go through when they reach the end of their journey and the end of your screenplay.

Story-building with Arc Studio Pro

If you are using Arc Studio Pro, we have made sticking to a story structure, like this one, easy with pre-set story structures! Choose from a variety of the most popular structures and simply fill in the blanks to help you get started, and stay on track. Learn more here.

Use Story Circle in your screenplay

Use Dan Harmon's Story Circle in your work to help you navigate the structure of your story. For example, consider the journey your hero goes on and the eight stages that will get them to where they will go.

If you are struggling, remember that character and plot are interrelated: by working on your characters' motivations and their wants, desires, fears, and anxieties, you can get a better sense of how their story circle might play out.


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Dan Harmon's Story Circle Explained: 8 Steps to a Better Screenplay
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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