How to Structure a Story like Dan Harmon


If you’re a fan of Community and/or Rick and Morty, you may, like me, have marvelled at the plotting. Although the concepts/premises are totally different, there are a lot of similarities in their deployment of the traditional sitcom storytelling style, in particular their reliance on spoofing other genres and their inclusion of absurd, high-concept adventures. Their similarities are unsurprising, since both shows are creations borne from the mind of Dan Harmon, and both shows rely heavily on DH’s tried and tested method for scriptwriting: the ‘story circle’. It is this story circle which is perhaps at the core of the sense of satisfying ‘neatness’ to Harmon’s writing.

DanHarmon's BasicModelForStoryStructure

He’s even been kind enough to share the details of his method online, in granular detail.

But if you aren’t interested in granular detail, and are just looking for the TL;DR version to apply to your own writing, read on here.

The ‘story circle’ method is actually just a visual representation of the 8 plot points which exist in any story. And not just in sitcom scripts: ANY story. Four hour biopics, thirty second adverts, you name it. And those eight plot points are:

  1. . A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. . But they want something.
  3. . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. . Adapt to it,
  5. . Get what they wanted,
  6. . Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. . Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. . Having changed.

If you look carefully, you can see that it’s actually two sentences. 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. Harmon contends that our brains are wired to see the world in cycles like this, and so we respond to any story that conforms to its structure. Once you get used to it, it becomes really easy to reverse engineer Harmon’s own plots. Take, for example, the episode from which the above still is taken: Total Rickall.

  1. Rick’s family are eating breakfast with their beloved uncle
  2. who Rick identifies as a parasite and kills.
  3. They realise they are infested by parasites posing as friends
  4. and quarantine themselves to identify the root cause.
  5. They manage to get rid of all of the parasites
  6. but accidentally kill Mr Poopy Butthole in the process.
  7. They return to their family lives,
  8. traumatised by MPB’s death.

If you’re not already a fan of Rick and Morty, don’t be put off by the character name ‘Mr Poopy Butthole’, by the way. Ok, here is the story circle theory applied to some other stories. See if you can guess them…

  1. A girl lives in a small, French town with her father
  2. But craves more mental stimulation.
  3. She moves to a creepy castle with a horrible, beastly master,
  4. and soon comes to realise the beastly master is not as horrible as she thought.
  5. She falls in love with the redeemed master
  6. but must battle to save him and his employees from the heretics in her town.
  7. She can then live happily ever after with her lover
  8. (who has literally physically changed) in the town which has come to accept him.

Or how about…

  1. A girl is moving to New York with her rich fiance, by boat,
  2. but she’s miserable and tries to take her own life.
  3. She’s rescued by a poor man
  4. who she falls in love with
  5. and who she decides to disembark the ship with.
  6. The ship sinks, taking the poor man with it,
  7. and the girl returns to her life alone
  8. but leaves her wealth and fiance behind.

Or even…

  1. A woman wakes up from a coma
  2. and wants to take revenge on the people who put her there.
  3. She sets out on a mission to kill all those involved
  4. with a tailor made sword
  5. and manages to kill them all.
  6. She laments the final murder – of her beloved ex partner
  7. but manages to complete her mission and return to her life
  8. with the daughter she believed to have died.

Or finally

  1. A psychologist loves his wife
  2. but senses she doesn’t love him anymore.
  3. He begins treating a new patient
  4. and learns that the patient is plagued by visitations from the dead –
  5. an affliction that the psychologist treats
  6. because his own death means that the child can see him too.
  7. He returns home to his wife,
  8. now aware that he was dead all along.

Did you get them all? I’ve included pictures at the end of this article, if you didn’t.

The story circle might seem like a ridiculously simple concept, but it’s actually really useful in helping you to be productive with your writing. You can use it to:

  • Generate Ideas

Even better if you’re working in a group, draw a circle and divide it into eight, then pass it round the circle and each add a stage to the story until it’s complete. Rotating in a group means you’ll end up with ideas that you couldn’t have imagined on your own, and can take your plot in a direction you might not have envisaged for yourself.

  • Plan And Structure A Story

Sometimes you can feel that you have a good idea for a story, but it dies when you start trying to write it, because what you actually had was a good premise. Put your premise to the test by seeing if you can tie it to these 8 pivot points. It may help you make sense of why your story doesn’t feel like a story yet. As you get on with the process of writing a story, reminding yourself regularly of the key points that your story needs to address can be really valuable in terms of keeping yourself on track.

  • Understand Your Story

If you’ve managed to get to the point of having actually completed a manuscript, or you’ve acquired an agent who’s willing to try and help you publish your work, you’ll inevitably have been asked to write a summary/synopsis of your story. And when this happens, it can suddenly cast doubt on the whole process. You can suddenly feel as though you don’t actually know your story at all! Using this frame can actually help you to clarify in your mind what the main beats of your plot are, which can be a useful tool in communicating your ideas to other people. Additionally, it may help you in the editing stage, when a section feels as though it’s flagging but you can’t seem to figure out why.

Ok, I’m going to go and attempt to generate some new ideas with the story circle!

Emily x

  1. Beauty and the Beastbeauty and the beast
  2. Titanictitanic
  3. Kill Billuma-thurman-sad15804
  4. The Sixth Sensethe_sixth_sense_63555-1600x1200-900x675

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