Storytelling guide

Story circle breakdown: master the 8 steps

When it comes to weaving a tale that keeps readers hooked, it’s like baking – sometimes, using a recipe can be super helpful. For stories, this “recipe” is often a framework or structure. And guess what? There’s a rather nifty one called the “Story Circle” whipped up by Dan Harmon, which was inspired by a method you might’ve heard of: Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” that we’ve mentioned in other posts.

1. Introduction to the Frameworks of Storytelling

From the bedtime tales read to us, like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” to binge-worthy shows like “Stranger Things,” to classics in novels like “Harry Potter,” all stories have certain patterns or frameworks they follow, even if the authors didn’t realize it.

Now, Joseph Campbell spotted this pattern ages ago and dubbed it “The Hero’s Journey.” Fast-forward a bit, and Dan Harmon zoomed in on this, gave it a bit of a shake, and out popped the Story Circle. By the way, before diving deep here, you might want to check out Harmon’s own explanation about this.

2. The Genesis of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

So, Campbell had this grand idea of “The Hero’s Journey,” where he saw common steps in tales from all around the world. Think of it like noticing all pizzas have dough, sauce, and cheese, even if the toppings differ. Harmon took this pizza (err, journey) and made it into a simple 8-slice pie chart called the Story Circle.

2.1. A Deep Dive into the 8 Elements of the Harmon Circle

2.1.1. The Elements of the Story Circle

Every great story, whether it’s a classic novel or a modern film, follows a certain rhythm. This rhythm is broken down into eight distinct parts in Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. Let’s delve deeper into each of these slices, understanding their significance and illustrating them with familiar examples: Starting Point

Every story begins in a zone of comfort, where the protagonist’s life is relatively uneventful. It’s the calm before the storm. In “The Lion King,” this is perfectly depicted by young Simba’s life. He’s just a cub, playing around Pride Rock, blissfully unaware of the challenges and adventures that await him. Desire Arises

Soon, a desire or need emerges. This is the spark that sets the protagonist on their journey. For instance, in the world of superheroes, Peter Parker, before becoming Spider-Man, is just an average teenager. He wishes for more – to stand out, to be special, and not just be the boy who’s always overlooked. Venturing Out

With desire burning strong, the protagonist takes the first step into the unknown. It’s a brave move, filled with uncertainties. In “The Lord of the Rings,” this is symbolized by Frodo Baggins leaving the safety of the Shire. He steps out of his comfort zone, embarking on a perilous journey to destroy the One Ring. Evolution

As the journey progresses, the protagonist learns, adapts, and grows. They face challenges that shape them. Mulan’s transformation is a prime example. Initially unsure and out of place in the army, she trains hard, discovering her inner warrior and proving her worth. Achievement

This is the moment where the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, or at least, they think they have. In the magical world of “Harry Potter,” this is seen when Harry retrieves the Sorcerer’s Stone, believing he’s prevented Voldemort’s return. Price of Desire

But every achievement comes at a cost. There are consequences to the protagonist’s actions. In superhero tales, this is often visualized by the destruction left in the wake of epic battles. Cities lie in ruins, and the hero must grapple with the aftermath of their decisions. The Return

After facing the consequences, the protagonist often returns to where they started, but they’re changed by their experiences. Moana’s journey is a testament to this. After her adventure and restoring the heart of Te Fiti, she returns to her island, but now as a confident leader, ready to guide her people. Transformation

The culmination of the journey is the protagonist’s transformation. They’ve grown, learned, and are not the same person they were at the story’s onset. Elsa from “Frozen” embodies this transformation. From a queen afraid of her powers, she evolves, embracing her abilities and her role, leading Arendelle with newfound confidence.

Each of these elements, when woven together, creates a narrative tapestry that resonates with audiences, making stories memorable and impactful.

2.2.2. How to Master the Harmon Circle in Your Storytelling

Embarking on the journey of storytelling can be both exhilarating and daunting. One of the tools many writers turn to is the Harmon Circle. However, it’s essential to approach it with the right mindset to truly harness its potential.

Flexibility of the Harmon Circle for Organic Storytelling

It’s crucial to understand that the Harmon Circle is not a strict formula that you must adhere to rigidly. Some writers get caught in the trap of trying to fit every single event in their story to a specific point on the circle. Instead, view the Harmon Circle as a flexible guide. It’s there to provide structure and coherence, but it doesn’t need to dictate every minor detail of your plot.

Just as a compass points you in the right direction without telling you every step to take, the Harmon Circle offers a general path for your narrative. It highlights the significant beats and moments that can make your story resonate with readers, but it leaves room for your unique voice and creativity.

Moreover, every story is different, and while the Harmon Circle is a valuable tool, it’s essential to let your narrative flow organically. Don’t force a plot point just because you feel it should fit into a particular segment of the circle. Instead, focus on the emotional journey of your characters and the message you want to convey.

While the Harmon Circle is a powerful tool in a storyteller’s arsenal, it’s most effective when used as a guiding light rather than a strict blueprint. Embrace its wisdom, but also trust your instincts and the unique story you have to tell.

2.2.3. The Story Circle in Action: Robinhood’s Tale

Let’s see this circle in action with the tale of Robinhood:

  1. The Comfortable Start: Robinhood gets back home. All’s good, except, oops, the Sheriff took his land.
  2. The Desire: He’s set on taking down the Sheriff but realizes he needs some pals.
  3. New Territory: Along comes the Merry Men squad, and oh, hello, Maid Marian.
  4. Adapting: Love’s in the air, and the plans with the Merry Men get bolder.
  5. Achieving Goals: Steal from the rich, give to the poor? Check!
  6. The Heavy Toll: But, ouch, the Sheriff doesn’t take it lightly and captures the gang.
  7. The Homecoming: Robinhood steps up, saves the day, and the Sheriff’s put in his place.
  8. A New Robinhood: With his love and pals, Robinhood’s got a new groove and mission in life.

3. Try Out the Story Circle Framework

Story frameworks like the Harmon Circle are nifty tools in a storyteller’s toolkit. They’re a bit like those drawing tutorials that start with basic shapes and then get detailed. So, the next time you’re daydreaming about wizards, robots, or superheroes, why not give the Story Circle a whirl?

Share your thoughts

I study narrative in my free time. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Let me know if you think this makes sense, where it doesn’t, or what you would suggest instead.