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

Handling Rejection

‘Do not read your Submittable page it will only make you feel ugly’ – Baz Luhrmann, 1997 (sort of)

This may shock you, but I rarely use this blog to mention the rejection emails I receive. I do get them, though. Lots of them. Most weeks, that thrilling little (1) symbol appears in my inbox and I think ‘ooh! what exciting missive might this be?? A job offer? A party invite? A million pound advance?’ Only to find another ‘we are sorry to inform you…’ or ‘unfortunately, on this occasion…’ Apart from in a few rare cases, I don’t feel disappointed. It’s not like I haven’t been warned of this workplace hazard. So I just file the rejections away, think of J.K.Rowling getting multiple rejections for her Harry Potter manuscript and remember Margaret Atwood’s stern advice: ‘nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.’

Anyway, with that context, it’s a lovely feeling to occasionally receive a email that begins with ‘we are delighted to inform you…’ And today, I did! My short-short story – Keep Calm and Carry Onwas short-shortlisted today for Retreat West’s Flash Fiction contest. You can read about the contest by clicking here. Funnily enough, RW had announced their longlist back in December, but I hadn’t even noticed. This is thanks to another technique I have for managing the disappointment of rejection: entering contests then forgetting all about them.

The winner will be announced in March, and will be selected by David Gaffney, acclaimed flash fiction author. The whole shortlist will be published in RW’s anthology, though, and gets a £15 prize. Does this mean I can call myself a paid writer now?

Emily x

Thirteen Writing Tips from Stephen King


It’s Friday the Thirteenth today! Spooky, huh? And what better way to spend a portentous day like this than by reading thirteen tips on writing from one of the most acclaimed and prolific horror writers of our time?

Did you know that Stephen King wrote The Shawshank Redemption? And Green Mile? And The Shining? Oh, and let’s not forget Carrie, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Mist, The Running Man, It, Salem’s Lot… For what it’s worth, my favourite piece of writing by King is a chilling short story called ‘Survivor Type’, which you can read online here.

But besides all the chill and gore, King has also penned an acclaimed ‘memoir of the craft’: On Writing. Of all the books I’ve been recommended on the topic of improving my writing skills, this one seems to have come up the most. So today, I’ve been reading through it and picking out tips, which I’ve summarised and paraphrased below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and On Writing really is worth your time and attention, if you’re a person that takes their writing seriously. To clarify: this is the advice of Stephen King, and does not necessarily reflect my own opinions or experience as a novice writer. There’s a lot of good advice for the taking, though. Plus, if you buy the book, there’s an exercise you can do, which you can then submit to the author himself!

Happy Friday! And don’t forget to lock your front door…

Emily x

  1. Writing is telepathy, so what message are you trying to send?
    Put in slightly less enigmatic terms, writing is taking an idea from my head and placing it into yours. To illustrate this idea, King describes a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes, sitting in a cage on a red tablecloth. The rabbit is munching on a carrot stub, which it holds between its paws.On the rabbit’s back, marked in blue ink, is the number 8. Can you picture the rabbit? King imagined that rabbit in his basement in Maine, back in 1997. Now here I am, in Beeston in 2017, receiving the image, loud and clear. Where are you, in space and time? Can you see the rabbit that passed from King’s mind to mine? King points out that he doesn’t labour over the description of the tablecloth or the cage, because it’s not important. What he wants you to focus on is the number eight. Why is it there, on the back of this caged rabbit? So as a writer, are you spending too long describing the tablecloth? Are you pointing out which shade of red it is, and whether it’s made of cotton or lace? Think about the story you want to tell, and tell that, not anything else.
  2. Don’t make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary.
    Got a big vocabulary? Fine, so does H.P.Lovecraft’s writing. Got a small one? Fine, so does Steinbeck’s. Words are communication tools – pick the best one for the job, not the longest. Sometimes, ‘said’ is fine. Sometimes ‘fine’ is fine, too. How should you decide which word to pick? King’s advice is to “use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful”.
  3. The adverb is not your friend.
    That’s words that describe actions, like ‘quickly’, ‘eerily’ or ‘smoothly’. King’s suggestion is that you’re probably over-explaining. You may think it’s useful to add ‘firmly’ in the sentence ‘he closed the door firmly’, but have you considered whether the surrounding context of the scene has already done that work for you? The key message here: if you’re using a lot of adverbs, you’re probably not trusting your reader – or your prose – enough.
  4. ‘Said’ is the best form of dialogue attribution.
    Forget what your teacher told you. Or, if I was your teacher, forget what I told you. Your reader can probably figure out how it’s being said from the dialogue, so loosen the reigns a little bit. Again, avoid the adverb. Consider the following examples:

    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said.
    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said, spitefully.
    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom growled.

    Did you learn anything more in the second two examples, about the kind of voice Tom was using to speak? Probably not. It was probably implicit for you in the dialogue. King suggests that – again – this kind of overwriting is a case of underestimating your reader, or underestimating yourself.

  5. Avoid the passive tense.
    Every verb has an active and a passive form. With the former, the subject is doing something: “Jenny bit her lip.” To translate that to passive, would look like this: “the lip was being bitten by Jenny.” The passive tense is the meek, indirect voice of business emails and instruction manuals. It sucks the life out of a story as quickly as a needle in a balloon. Make your writing active. Make Jenny bite her lip.
  6. Chekhov’s gun works in reverse, too.
    You may have heard of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. The idea is that every memorable element in a piece of fiction should be necessary (even if it’s necessary as a red herring). In Chekhov’s words: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” King points out that this idea is also true in reverse: if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a role in the story’s resolution, it needs to be introduced early on.
  7. Avoid over or under describing.
    Enough to ground the reader, not so much that they’re drowning in imagery. King suggests that a few details can stand in for everything, and the reader will fill in the rest. He also suggests that the first few details that come to mind are probably the best, and that “the key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary”.
  8. Omit needless words.
    Sounds simple, huh? But bear in mind that in your first draft, you’re creating a world. Once the world has been created, probably about 50% of the words you used to build it will turn out to be scaffolding that you can now discard.
  9. Read a lot and write a lot.
    Sorry, guys. There’s no escaping this one. Would you open a bakery if you weren’t willing to bake and eat cakes? King writes daily – 2000 words is his target, and he sets his mornings aside for the task – and says that if he doesn’t, the characters start to go stale. He suggests that you could start by aiming a little lower – perhaps 1000 words a day – and should take no more than one day off a week. In terms of reading, he advocates for reading widely and across genres, and not to dismiss bad books as a waste of time – they teach you just as much as the good ones. King says he reads 70 or 80 books a year. I managed only 27 last year. Must try harder.
  10. Write what you like, as long as you tell the truth.
    This is a variation on the cliched aphorism that you should ‘write what you know’, which creates space for writing about monsters and spaceships and bringing a monster to life on a dreary night in November. King phrases it thusly: “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
  11. Start with situations and characters, not plots.
    King makes the excellent point that you want your characters to “do things their way”, instead of marching them through a carefully planned plot.
  12. Dialogue is crucial in defining character.
    In King’s words, “talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character.” The way a character speaks can show your reader how smart your character is, how honest, how direct, how malevolent… It’s a great way to live up to that old writing cliche of ‘showing, not telling’. Good dialogue, King points out, is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is embarrassing.

  13. Put your first draft in the proving drawer.
    You should leave it alone for six weeks at least, according to King. Let yourself get so involved in a new project that the old one becomes less precious and immediate to you. Then, once you’ve gained enough distance from it, you’re ready to do a good job of re-reading and editing. Do it in one sitting, if you can.

New Year, New You: Creative Resolutions


Is January 12th too late for a New Years Resolutions blog post? Maybe. Never mind. George Eliot wrote that “it’s never too late to be who you might have been”. Lovely Mary-Ann Evans: she gave me so much to think about for my undergrad dissertation, and she’s still teaching me now. Homegirl was a trailblazer, no doubt, as a writer and a feminist. But she also championed the right to change one’s mind. Evangelical Christian one minute, atheist the next,  a writer who sought to challenge literary stereotypes of women but who rejected women’s suffrage, Eliot’s/Evans’ life was anything but a straight line. When I was eighteen, and for some time after, I believed in the straight line. I knew everything about my life and the path it would take, and I was anxious and impatient to get going. If you’re an ex-boyfriend and I was sure about where your life was going too, sorry. Now, at 27, I’m less sure than ever what the right direction is. But I’m also less anxious. I think the paths probably overlap, and reconnect, to paraphrase Robert Frost. I think it’s not too late, to be who I might be. I think it’s not too late to be unsure. I think it’s never too late to be unsure.

Anyway, I like January. I like resolutions. I enjoy the monastic celebration of sobriety and the optimism of new beginnings. But I’m a realist, too. Fuck abs, man. I like carbohydrates and Netflix too much. My resolutions this year are about reading and writing. ‘A writer’ is the current version of me I’m enjoying trying to be. And because you can take the girl out of the secondary school but you can’t take the secondary school out of the girl, these resolutions are all written in the form of SMART targets: i.e. they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Timely. That means that when NYE 2018 rolls around, I can accurately assess if I stuck to them.

  1. Blog twice a week – to achieve this, I intend to include book reviews, records of literary achievements and reflections on the writing process.
  2. Write daily – A minimum of 500 words or a poem. Every writer worth their salt advocates for this habit. In the morning, preferably.
  3. Get an agent – All I can do is write to them. All they can do is say no!
  4. Enter competitions – At least one a week.
  5. Complete another manuscript – pressing save on my first one was up there with crossing the finish line of the Amsterdam Marathon.
  6. Read 30 books – I read 23 last year (that I can remember), so this seems manageable. I’d like to set a more ambitious number but I’m not the quickest reader and these targets are supposed to be Achievable. Six of last year’s reads were re-reads (usually for teaching purposes). I’d like to avoid that as much as possible, this year. There are plenty of never-read books already on my bookshelf, patiently waiting their turn.

Emily x



Site Updates: am I a writer yet?

In my classroom on World Book Day with Emma. Saigon, 2015.

When I was a teacher, I felt very confident that I was a teacher. It said it on my PGCE certificate. It said it on my GTC membership certificate. It said it on my job contract. It said it on my payslips. When I turned up to the building known as ‘school’ five days a week, I was regularly addressed by small people as ‘miss’, which is of course shorthand across the Western world for ‘female educational professional’ or ‘teacher’. There was no doubt then, that I was a teacher.

So when am I allowed to call myself a writer?

Well, I write most days. I send bits of writing to contests often, and last year I poured a sizable chunk of my savings (from teaching) into obtaining a qualification that would declare me a Master of Writing. I’m currently working on finding an agent to represent me in getting my first manuscript published.

But there is no job contract.

And although my certificate declares that I have mastered the skill, this is more of a comment on what I’m capable of, as opposed to an entry pass into the magical theme park of paid writing opportunities.

And there are definitely not any pay slips. (Rough calculation: money made so far from teaching: £100k +. Money made so far from writing: -£10k +).

Perhaps most disheartening of all, there is no building that I can go to in order to be referred to as a writer. The boost in esteem that came with being a teacher (and the positive impact that allows you to make) was, for me, enormous. By contrast, the process of writing stories and submitting them to strangers who – 95 times out of 100 – will ignore or reject them, is the equivalent of shoving your self esteem into a tumble drier full of rocks and rusty nails.

So. If a writer writes and no one is there to appreciate it (or pay them), are they actually a writer?

Well, in my case, yes. Because as of today, I say so.

I didn’t feel the need to get below a certain pace before I started calling myself a runner.

I don’t feel the need to have visited a certain number of countries or to have read a certain number of books before calling myself a traveller or a reader.

I am a writer because I write. Being paid to do it would be nice. Being paid and acclaimed would be even better.

But for now, I am a writer, because I write. And for now, that is enough.

If you’re reading this and you have aspirations of being a writer, I hope you’ll take this as encouragement. If you want to be a writer: just start writing. As often as you can. Every day if possible. The rest – I hope – will follow. 🙂

Emily x

P.S. I have made some little changes to the title and subheading of the site (though the URL hasn’t changed yet) to reflect the fact that – now that I’m a full time PhD student of writing – I’m hoping to start including posts about the process of writing and my attempts to embark upon a career in writing.

Just Do It

So recently I’ve gone completely off of the blog posting radar, ironically, on account of starting my Masters in Writing.

Although I’ve been writing a lot more regularly, it has been on longer projects and much harder to publish in pithy posts on here. One thing I have been writing though is posts for my MA class’s blog. I just discovered the reblogging tool and so thought I’d try it out by sharing my posts from there… here.

These are non fiction pieces about whatever I happen to be thinking about, every other Tuesday.

Emily x



It’s Tuesday. It’s a bit cloudy. The weekend feels like some distant, desert mirage. You may well, like me, be in need of some motivation. And where better to get it than from a faceless, multinational corporation?

Perhaps it’s my current obsession with running (I’m taking part in the Amsterdam marathon this weekend) or my other, considerably more powerful obsession with advertising (I’ve spent approximately five times as many hours watching Mad Men this summer than I have spent with actual humans) but I’ve been pretty fascinated with Nike’s marketing lately. Which other company is so instantly recognisable: not just from their simple, three syllable slogan but from their logo; the infamous ‘swoosh’ tick?

Fun fact: the Nike logo was invented by a graphic design student, Carolyn Davidson, in 1971. The ‘swoosh’ was intended to evoke the winged flight of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and earned Ms Davidson…

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