The Dan Harmon Story Circle: 8 Steps to a Powerful Structure
The Dan Harmon Story Circle, also known as “The Embryo”, is an approach to plotting developed by TV writer Dan Harmon. It follows a protagonist through eight stages, beginning with the character being in their comfort zone, then venturing out into the unknown to seek something they want. The character achieves their desire, but at a great cost, and ultimately returns transformed by what they’ve experienced.
This narrative framework is applicable to a wide range of genres and forms, and is a great way to structure any story that focuses on character development. This post contains a breakdown of the individual steps, gives examples of the Story Circle in action, and explains why it’s such an invaluable template for writers.
What is the Dan Harmon Story Circle?
This particular story structure is adapted from The Hero’s Journey — which itself derives from the work of academic Joseph Campbell. The Story Circle lays out a kind of narrative arc that's commonly used by myths from all over the world and emphasises 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.
The Story Circle functions similarly — so, you may ask, why not just use the original? In short, Campbell’s system is more complex (11-steps), and alludes to a particular type of story, namely high fantasy (think knights, wizards, potions, and swords in stones). What Harmon did was streamline this process to just eight steps, and broaden them out to be less genre specific. 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 steps are comprised of basic human motivations, actions, and consequences, which he lays out in a circle:
You might be asking why Harmon doesn’t just lay this structure out in a flat line. When asked about this, he points to the rhythms of biology, psychology, and culture as his inspiration: 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.
The 8 steps of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Now that we’ve got the background, it’s time to get into the meat: what are the steps of the Story Circle, and what do they entail.
Here are the Story Circle’s 8 steps:
- A character is in a zone of comfort. Everyday life is mundane and unchallenging.
- But they want something. The protagonist’s desire compels them to take action.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation. The character crosses the threshold to pursue what they want.
- Adapt to it. They acquire skills and learn how to survive in this new world.
- Get what they wanted. The character achieves their goal, but at a cost.
- Pay a heavy price for it. New and unexpected losses follow the victory.
- Then return to their familiar situation. The character goes back to where they started.
- Having changed. The story’s resolution; the lessons they’ve learned stay with them, and the character has grown.
There's perhaps no better example of this system in action than the sci-fi comedy series, Rick and Morty, which Harmon co-created. Known for its fast-paced, pop-culture-inflected humor, affection for science fiction tropes, the show has also been praised for its dense storytelling, often fitting in a feature film’s worth of plot within a modest 21-minute runtime.
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, flying through space with Jerry in tow. Things take a turn when Rick takes a call to organize a shady deal, and unceremoniously dumps Jeff from their spaceship.
It becomes apparent that Rick is carrying out an arms deal, selling weapons to an assassin to pay for an afternoon at the arcade — much to Morty’s dismay.
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.” Putting things right is Morty’s “want”, which 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 in the process. He’s now trapped in an Intergalactic Federation outpost.
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 and they make their escape.
5. Get what they wanted
Morty has achieved his goal: he’s saved a life, and stopped a prolific assassin — 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. Bounty hunters and law enforcement are seeking the group, and Fart slaughters many space cops and innocent bystanders 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’, a phase Harmon refers to as “crossing the threshold” (here metaphorical, rather than a literal return home). 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 (the return) is directly opposite to Step 3, where Morty first crossed the threshold into the unfamiliar situation. Balance and harmony are a big part of Harmon's approach to storytelling.
8. Having changed
“So Morty makes the decision to change into someone who kills.” Realizing that his belief that all lives must be saved is not an absolute truth — some are simply malevolent — 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 use the Story Circle?
According to Harmon, the beauty of the Story Circle is that it can be applied to any type of story — and, conversely, be used to build any type of story, too.
“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 far removed from Harmon’s own work 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, or something like it. 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. They can also be a great tool to know what should come next, and to pace yourself within your story — if you’re halfway through and still in the comfort zone, you know you need to make some changes.
There are, of course, plenty of other options for story structure, which you can learn about by reading the rest of this guide — or trying the quiz below!
Which story structure is right for you?
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.