How to Structure a Story like Dan Harmon

Total_Rickall

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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Lessons Learned while Long Distance Walking

This post should really be entitled ‘Lessons Learned while Long Distance Walking and Marking GCSE Exams’. It’s a less catchy title, but a more accurate summary of what this post is going to be about. Because for the summer of 2017 – so far at least – I have mostly been marking and walking.

The marking was the main subject of my June. I’d signed up to mark 300 AQA English Literature GCSE scripts (modern texts and poetry, if you’re interested) over the space of three weeks.

‘Easy’, thought May 2017 Emily. ‘I know teachers who do this on top of a full-time teaching job, and I’m only tutoring part-time. I’ll be able to do a few scripts every morning and spend my afternoons reading, writing and getting back into running again.’

Lol.

June 2017 Emily did no reading or writing at all. June 2017 Emily did not get back into running again. June 2017 Emily forgot to clean her teeth or get dressed some days, and came to see leaving the house as a grand achievement, as she turned all of her attention to meeting her daily target of fifteen scripts, while bitterly cursing the name of any teacher who managed to do this on top of a full-time job.

It got easier, of course. I managed to pick up the pace, and by the third week I was confident that I would meet my 300 script target. I even started brushing my teeth, and went so far as to take most of the day off to go to London with my parents (though I did mark some on the train). But the easy bit wasn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit that I want to dwell on was the first week, when I worked 9-5 to complete approximately five scripts per day, and yet never once questioned that I would somehow find a way to complete the task at hand. I became methodical about the solution, sorting through my diary to set realistic daily targets that would account for any plans I’d made, and using fifteen minute timers to keep myself on track. I accepted the possibility of late night marking sessions, and I experimented with different marking techniques to see which was most efficient. And in the end, I got the job done.

I don’t say all this to blow my own trumpet, but rather the opposite. Because if I can be so committed to marking 300 exam scripts for AQA, why am I finding it so hard to write a second book? Isn’t it ironic that I left full-time teaching to pursue my passion – writing – more fully, but find it easier to throw my energies into the trappings of the job I left behind?

And it’s not just marking.

IMG-20170712-WA0005
Between Borrowdale and Grasmere, July 2017

The start of my July was spent, as I mentioned earlier, completing a long distance walk. Bright and early on Saturday 8th, Pete and I struggled onto a train from York, weighed down by day packs and 30kg of camping equipment, each bearing a one way ticket to the seaside. The plan – and it had been a plan of ours for almost four years – was to dip our booted feet into the Irish Sea, pick up a pebble from the beach at St Bees Head, and then to begin walking east. 192 miles would roll by, as we strolled through twelve long, light days of English summer before arriving in Robin Hoods Bay, dipping our still booted feet into the North Sea and casting our pebbles out into their new, more Easterly home. I envisaged the walks energising me with endorphins which would allow me to tapp into rich seams of creativity in my mind, which I would then channel into luxuriating prose in the evenings, nestled cosily in my camping chair, with the smell of campsite cooking and the bleating of sheep as my lullaby.

LOL.

Well, I was right about the sheep at least. There were bloody loads of sheep.

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Cuddly sheep near Reeth, July 2017
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Shy sheep near Ennerdale water, July 2017

Perhaps you understand miles better than me, but 192 is a lot of them: especially when you’re intending to walk them in twelve days. Perhaps you understand England better than me, but the route across the Lake District is not a route along which one ‘strolls’. The elevation involved in the walk is – apparently – the equivalent of ascending Everest. Write I did not. Tap into seams of creativity I did not. The Coast to Coast walk, we soon realised, was an endurance challenge. And that was without the added stress of camping, and the fact that we’d shaved two days off of the suggested itinerary length.

But we did it!

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A bit weepy and a lot tired, Robin Hoods Bay, July 2017
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A commemorative plaque on the wall of the Bay Hotel, Robin Hoods Bay.

And don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed it too. It continued to be tough, yes, and there were lots of moments in which I struggled, ached and contemplated catching a bus, just for a few miles. But of course, that was never really an option. We had told ourselves we would complete the task, and complete it we would. And as anyone who has run a marathon will know – equally anyone who has moved to a new place where no-one knows them, or who has forced themselves out of bed at ridiculous-o’clock to rehearse or practise or train towards something – there are few better feelings than completing a task you once thought you couldn’t.

One of the teachers on my MA advised that we should work hard and set ourselves high standards, and that we’d be surprised by how much we could achieve that way. She is right, and I’m reminded of it every time I complete something that I once doubted was within my grasp. The achievement is an exhilarating and elating feeling; it expands one’s comfort zone, in such a way that the comfort zone can never shrink back.

So why can’t this knowledge be applied to writing a book?

Is it the lack of external pressure? I completed the Coast to Coast walk at least partly buoyed forward by the fact that I’d told people I’d do it, and it’d be embarrassing if I failed. It was the same emotion that pushed me to complete the marathon. But I’ve tried telling people that I’m writing a book – even giving them daily word targets and a deadline – and it didn’t work. No one really judges you for not finding the time to write a book.

Is it the intangibility of the result? The stages of the Coast to Coast walk are clearly laid out, and there are countless blogs on how to train for and run a marathon. The miles were hard, but none of them were unexpected. Writing a book, to paraphrase another of my MA teachers, is like trying to hack a path through a dense thicket with an axe.

Perhaps this is the big problem. It’s certainly the biggest shadow that looms over me during the process. As many flashcards and bullet points and character sketches as I scaffold myself with, there’s no escaping the fact that to write a book is to try and invent something that didn’t exist before.

But I have done it once before, and so this answer isn’t enough, on its own. And yet, funnily enough, the book I did manage to complete was only completed because I’d entered the first few chapters into a contest and lied about having finished the manuscript. There was a grand plan to complete it before the deadline, but of course, I forgot. Aspiring writers enter a lot of competitions, and the percentage of those entries which turn into rejection emails mean that it wouldn’t be healthy to eagerly remember them all. So when I received an email asking for the full manuscript – with a generous 14 days to make any final tweaks – I hadn’t gotten any further than the few chapters I’d submitted. But I dug deep, cancelled all my plans, replied gratefully to the email and finished my book in two weeks.

I say finished. It was far from perfect, and it didn’t win the competition, but I had a finished manuscript. It’s a lot easier to edit a finished manuscript than to edit one that doesn’t exist. I now have a polished manuscript which I’m truly proud of, and it’s all thanks to that email, which set me a seemingly impossible deadline.

So perhaps external pressure is the key ingredient, after all. Perhaps it’s just about finding the right kind of external pressure. Maybe shouting into the darkness of the internet – in this instance – is more valuable than a supportive friend. My intention is, in this case, to use my blog to do just that – to chart the progress I hope to make. If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with the task of writing a book too, please do get in touch. Shouting into the dark is fun, but hearing a voice shout back is even better.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from AQA marking and long distance walking, which can be applied to writing a book. Break your task down into chunks. Give yourself enough time. Take pressure off yourself in other areas. Look at your previous achievements and realise how much you are capable of. Completing the task is better than deliberating over how to complete it best. And while preparation is key, sometimes, the only route to success is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. With lots of little steps, eventually, you can walk from coast to coast. And with lots of little words, eventually, you can write a book. Now I just need to take my own advice.

Emily x

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Thirteen Writing Tips from Stephen King

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.