The Dan Harmon Story Circle: What Authors Can Learn from Rick and Morty
Writer Dan Harmon, the creator of TV’s Community, has a reputation for being a story structure evangelist. For over a decade, he’s been known to ‘break’ the stories he’s working on with a system he known as ‘The Embryo,’ ‘The Dan Harmon Story Circle,’ or just ‘The Story Circle.’
There's perhaps no better example of this system in action than the sci-fi comedy series, Rick and Morty, which Harmon co-created. In little over 30 episodes, Rick and Morty has gained one of the most devoted fan-bases of any animated show since Matt Groening’s Futurama. Known for its fast-paced, pop-culture-inflected humor, affection for science fiction tropes (and its not-so-passing resemblance to characters from Back to the Future) the show has also been praised for its dense storytelling, often fitting in a feature film’s worth of plot within a 21-minute runtime.
But you might be thinking, this is a blog for authors, not TV comedy writers. Why are they talking about a cartoon with a burping granddad? Well, it has to do with something no novelist can avoid: structure.
What is the Dan Harmon Story Circle?
The Story Circle is an approach to plotting that Harmon adapted from The Hero’s Journey — which itself derives from the work of academic Joseph Campbell. It lays out a kind of narrative arc that's commonly used by myths from all over the world and emphases how almost all forms of storytelling have a cyclical nature. In broad strokes, they always involve:
- Characters venturing out to get what they need, and
- Returning, having changed.
To get an idea of how The Story Circle differs from other, similar structures, here are the stages of The Hero’s Journey as laid out by screenwriter Christopher Vogler:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
Some of these labels allude to a particular type story: tales of squires becoming sword-wielding knights, recovering potions from some hidden cave. Real life-and-death stuff. What Harmon did is refine these to just eight steps (which kind of coincide with standard plot points). These are comprised of basic human motivations, actions, and consequences, which he lays out on a circle:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
The benefit of Harmon’s version over Vogler’s is that it focuses more specifically on character and is much easier to apply to a wider range of stories.
The Story Circle in Rick and Morty
In the video below, Harmon applies the story circle to an episode of Rick and Morty entitled “Mortynight Run.” For enough context to understand the clip, here’s some background info:
Rick is a mad, drunk, egomaniacal scientist who has invented a portal gun that allows him to have debauched adventures across time and space. He almost always drags his sensitive, anxious grandson Morty along for the ride. In this episode, they also bring along Morty’s father, Jerry, for whom Rick only has disdain.
Let's take another look at how the episode’s “A” story — which centers on Morty's journey — fits into the story circle.
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
The first beat of the story sees Rick and Morty on what seems like just another one of their adventures. “Morty exists in comfort until he finds out that Rick is an arms dealer,” which leads to...
2. But they want something
As Harmon points out, “This is an ethical quandary for Morty.” The boy is put in a situation of guilt that compels him to “go across a threshold and search for a way to undo the ethical damage that he perceives Rick as doing.” That takes us to the next stage.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
Even though he rarely defies his grandfather’s instructions, Morty takes Rick’s car keys and chases after the assassin, accidentally killing him.
4. Adapt to it
Morty discovers an alien gas entity named ‘Fart’ — who was the assassin’s target. Going against Rick’s instructions once more (and making what he believes to be the ethical choice), Morty liberates Fart from space jail.
5. Get what they wanted
Morty has achieved his goal: he’s saved a life — and can now rest assured that he’s done the right thing.
6. Pay a heavy price for it
“In the second half of the story, we start finding out that the act of saving that life is going to cost a lot of other people their lives,” Harmon explains, as we see Fart slaughter many space cops while Rick and Morty make their escape.
7. Then return to their familiar situation
After the escape, the gang returns to a place resembling ‘normal life,’ crossing what Harmon calls “the return threshold.” At this point, Morty realizes that Fart is a truly malevolent creature and means to return with his people to destroy all carbon-based life.
Note: On the circle diagram, Step 7 is directly opposite to Step 3, where Morty crossed the threshold into the unfamiliar situation. Balance and harmony are a big part of storytelling.
8. Having changed
“So Morty makes the decision to change into someone who kills.” He terminates Fart, thereby saving the universe and becoming someone different from the person he started as. As Harmon points out, this is not a show for kids: not all protagonists need to learn universally positive messages for a story to ring true.
Harmon has laid out his process for using the story circle in a fascinating set of posts (warning: contains swears) where he also talks about the nature of storytelling, answering questions like…
Why is this structure a circle?
You might be asking why Harmon doesn’t just lay this structure out in a flat line. He lightly touches on the rhythms of biology, psychology, and culture: how we all move cyclically through phases of life and death, conscious and unconscious, order and chaos.
The fascinating thing he points out is that cycles like these are, in part, what have allowed humans to evolve.
“Behind (and beneath) your culture creating forebrain, there is an older, simpler monkey brain with a lot less to say and a much louder voice. One of the few things it's telling you, over and over again, is that you need to go search, find, take and return with change. Why? Because that is how the human animal has kept from going extinct, it's how human societies keep from collapsing and how you keep from walking into McDonald's with a machine gun.”
“We need [to] search — We need [to] get fire, we need [to find a] good woman, we need [to] land [on the] moon — but most importantly, we need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn't have survived our first ice age.”
What Harmon's getting at is that stories are a basic, universal part of human culture because of their millennia-long history as both a teaching and a learning tool. This idea of questing, changing, and returning is not a hack concept concocted by lazy writers, but an ingrained part of our collective psyche. That’s why stories from one culture are able to resonate with people across the world.
In Harmon’s philosophy, when a book, film, show, or song doesn’t meet the criteria above, it’s not necessarily bad writing: it’s simply not a story.
Does the story circle really apply to every story?
According to Harmon, yes.
“Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics).”
So let’s put that theory to the test. Let’s pick an example that’s the furthest away from a profane cartoon for adults and see if it applies: Dickens’s Great Expectations.
- Zone of Comfort: Pip, a young orphan, lives a modest life on the moors.
- But they want something: He becomes obsessed with Estella, a wealthy girl of his age.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation: A mysterious benefactor plucks Pip from obscurity and throws him — a fish out of water — into London society.
- Adapt to it: He learns to live the high life and spends his money frivolously
- Get what they wanted: Pip is finally a gentleman, which he believes will entitle him/make him worthy of Estella.
- Pay a heavy price for it: Pip discovers that his money came from a convict, he drowns in debt, he regrets alienating his Uncle, he realizes that his pursuit of Estella is futile.
- Then return to their familiar situation: Pip makes peace with his Uncle Joe (who nurses him back to health). Pip disappears to Egypt for years, and once again returns home…
- Changed: Back once again where the story started, a now-humbled Pip reunites with Estella who, due to some plot, is ready to open her heart to him.
Although Great Expectation was a serial, written week-by-week, Dickens must have consciously or unconsciously been aware of this cycle. He sent his characters on a journey towards something they wanted — only for them to pay the price and return home, changed.
As with any sensible advice about structure, the takeaway here is not that you must slavishly adhere to a set formula or risk ruining your story. This story circle, along with other popular story structures like the three-act structure, are simply tools based on observations of stories that have managed to resonate with readers over the centuries. Just know this: if you find yourself at an impasse with any story you’re writing — you could do a lot worse than crack out the story wheel, identify where you are, and see what comes next in the cycle.