One of the most recently appreciated and widely-used story structures is the Dan Harmon Story Circle.
While the model draws heavily on the hero's journey and other similar models, it also tends to simplify things in a way that makes crafting a story easy.
But what exactly is Dan Harmon's Story Circle? Well, that is what I am here to unpack.
- What the Story Circle is
- A detailed breakdown of all eight steps in the Story Circle
- Examples of the Story Circle in use
- How you can use the Story Circle in your writing
Table of contents
- What Is the Dan Harmon Story Circle?
- Who Is Dan Harmon?
- How Does the Dan Harmon Story Circle Work?
- The 8 Stages of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
- 1. You: the character is in a comfort zone
- 2. Need: The Character Must Want Something
- 3. Go: The Protagonist Enters an Unfamiliar Setting
- 4. Search: The Character Must Adapt To the Unfamiliar World
- 5. Find: The Character Finds What They Wanted
- 6. Take: The Character Must Pay the Price of What They Found
- 7. Return: The Hero Returns to Where They Started
- 8. Change: The Character Is Able to Shift the World around Them
- Examples of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
- How to Use the Dan Harmon Story Circle
Side note: I recommend Plottr as a storytelling software to help you outline your book. With it, you can follow the Story Circle, or a wide variety of other story structures, as you are plotting your books. If you use the links in this article, I do get a small affiliate commission, but it costs you nothing extra and goes straight to the coffee fund. More on Plottr later.
What Is the Dan Harmon Story Circle?
The Story Circle is a narrative structure, first coined by screenwriter and creator Dan Harmon, which is modeled off of the hero's journey, first popularized by Joseph Campbell.
Like the hero's journey, the Story Circle can be found, in one form or another, in almost every story ever told. You will find it in myths from all over the world, you will find in modern storytelling, you may even find it when you hear your neighbor telling you what happened to them last week.
That said, it is not exactly like the hero's journey. The Story Circle has eight stages:
- You – Where the character is in a zone of comfort
- Need – And they want something
- Go – So they enter an unfamiliar situation
- Search – Adapt to it
- Find – They find what they wanted
- Take – Pay the price of taking it
- Return – They go back to where they started
- Change – And is now changed
I’ll discuss each of these in more depth further down, but notice how this compares to the 12 steps of the hero's journey, as outlined by 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
- The road back
What Dan Harmon has done in his Story Circle is to boil these 12 steps down to eight, focusing specifically on the character arc, motivations, actions, as well as consequences.
And by making the Story Circle even more simple, Dan Harmon has also managed to make it more universal.
In fact, because the Dan Harmon Story Circle focuses so much on character, it can be used in far more situations than the hero's journey.
Who Is Dan Harmon?
Dan Harmon is a celebrated screenwriter, best known for Community and the animated show Rick and Morty, though he has been screenwriting since the mid-1990s.
Earlier in his career, Dan Harmon thoroughly researched the hero's journey, as presented by Joseph Campbell, as well as Christopher Vogler who popularized the hero's journey in the world of screenwriting.
Harmon took this concept and simplified it in such a way that screenwriters could easily use in their day-to-day writing. What he came up with is now known as the Story Circle.
How Does the Dan Harmon Story Circle Work?
The top part of the circle, i.e. the first three steps and the last step, represents order. During these four steps, everything is in a state of equilibrium, and all is right with the world.
The bottom half, i.e. steps four through seven, represent chaos. It is during these times that the world brings unknown temptations and trials, and our character has to deal with situations that are uncomfortable.
It is through these trials that the characters are able to gain strength, overcome weaknesses, and ultimately return to the place of order, this time a changed character.
So as the character progresses through these eight stages, they manage to go from order, to chaos, and back to order again.
The 8 Stages of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Now it's time to dive straight into all eight stages of Dan Harmon's Story Circle. I'll give you the basic information about each, as well as breakdown approximately how this should fit your story overall.
1. You: the character is in a comfort zone
Step 1 takes place at the very beginning of your story, when you are introduced to your main character, understand the world that your character lives in, and demonstrate that they are in a familiar situation of some kind (whether that is emotional, physical, etc.).
Quick tips to make step one shine:
- Find a way to help the reader care about your protagonist (i.e. save the cat), as readers will not care what happens to your protagonist if the don't have a reason to.
- Allow the protagonist sometime to interact with the world around them so that we understand that they are in the comfort zone, and why that comfort zone is important to them.
- Keep the exposition to a minimum. Add just enough that the reader understands the location that the protagonist is in, and anything that is immediately important to know for that character. Remember that a lot can be picked up by context alone.
Chronology note: this step takes place during Act I, and should take up approximately 12% of your story.
2. Need: The Character Must Want Something
Right from the beginning, you should make it clear that all is not right in the protagonist's world. While they are operating from a place of comfort, they have some internal or external need.
Often, it is this need, or something related to it, that creates the inciting incident of the plot. So it is important that you get this part right.
Quick tips to make step two shine:
- For plot-driven stories, use external needs, where the protagonists wants to change or achieve something. This can be anything from a physical object to the love of someone, to respect of their peers.
- For character-driven stories, go with an internal need, which can be something like humility if they are prideful characters, courage if they are a timid character, etc.
- Many stories have external and internal motivations.
- During this section, you should introduce the inciting incident, ideally related to their need.
- Ideally, this needs should be so great that it propels the character outside of their comfort zone.
Chronology note: this step should be introduced early on within Act I of the three act structure, ideally on or before the 15% mark of your book.
3. Go: The Protagonist Enters an Unfamiliar Setting
It is at this point that the characters are thrust into worlds unknown, completely outside of their comfort zone, whether that be literally or emotionally.
This section introduces the core conflict of a good story, conflict that will be with the protagonist until near the end of the story. This is where the character starts working towards their goals, but encounters resistance along the way.
Quick tips to make step three shine:
- Make the conflict of the story readily apparent, as this can increase the tension and get readers excited to read more.
- The character should have their first encounter with a real challenge at this point.
- While the character is firmly outside of their comfort zone, they should still be willing to take action to get what they need.
Chronology note: step three ventures into Act II of a three act structure, roughly around the 25% mark. At this point we have left Act I behind and should be firmly entrenched in the main narrative.
4. Search: The Character Must Adapt To the Unfamiliar World
It is at this point that the character realizes that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. Suddenly, the journey to get what they need has become much more complicated.
So in order to get what they need, they must search for solutions to their challenges, which can lead to more challenges, and more crises, all leading to the ultimate climax of the story.
Quick tips to make step four shine:
- Start adding additional conflict to make yours a better story. Show the protagonist continuing to try and overcome the conflict, only to fail and try again.
- If you have not already, introduce allies that are there to help your protagonist along the way.
- You can increase the stakes by ensuring that something or someone is lost along the way.
Chronology note: by now, we are firmly in Act II of a three act structure, and the stakes are beginning to rise. Nevertheless, don't spend too much time in this section, and let it take you to approximately the 30% mark of your story.
5. Find: The Character Finds What They Wanted
Now we come to a pivotal turning point, roughly at the midpoint of your book, where the protagonist finds what they need, and they are awarded a brief moment of victory.
What we don't know, however, is that finding the solution brings new problems with it. The character may discover that what they wanted was not what they actually needed, or looks considerably different from what they thought.
Quick tips to make step five shine:
- Start by showing a victory, a.k.a. the protagonist finds something that appears to be the correct solution.
- Take a moment to celebrate, allow the reader to think there is hope, then use this as an opportunity for a plot twist and raise the stakes once again.
- For external motivations, this can be a physical item or achievement. For internal motivations, the thing that the hero finds is often a revelatory piece of information about themselves.
Chronology note: this step takes place roughly at the middle of the story, around the 50% mark.
6. Take: The Character Must Pay the Price of What They Found
At this point in the story, the character must face a hefty price for the thing that they thought they wanted, and that they achieved in the last step.
This huge price tag should bring the character to a new low, building up to the final climax of the story. This new low will create a new need, one that is a little more fitting of the character.
It is what the character truly needed, despite the fact that it probably conflicts with what the character wanted.
Quick tips to make step six shine:
- Make it clear that the character’s actions have huge consequences, sometimes catastrophic.
- Have the character face new challenges as a result of finding what they think they wanted.
- You should have the character face a significant loss, the nature of which will depend on the genre and the type of story you want to tell.
Chronology note: This takes place towards the end of Act II, right around the 65-75% mark.
7. Return: The Hero Returns to Where They Started
This is a figurative or literal return to where the hero started, complete with new knowledge, skills, items, etc. that they found along the journey. It is these things that the character finds that prepares them to confront the final conflict of the story.
While this is not the same type of return talked about in Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, as the climax has not happened yet, it is a return to more familiar grounds. You will often see stories returning to where they started, often literally, but also thematically.
Quick tips to make step seven shine:
- This is a moment to pause and show how the character is returning to their normal world.
- This is also an opportunity to show how the character has changed.
- Remember we are still in the stage of chaos. Not all is set right with the world yet, but by returning to the comfort zone armed with new power, the character is building towards that climax.
Chronology note: this is the start of Act III, roughly 75% of the way through the story.
8. Change: The Character Is Able to Shift the World around Them
At last we get the final climax of the story. This is where we see the character use all that they have gained/learned in order to achieve their goal or defeat the antagonist.
This is where the main conflict and the hero come head-to-head, and we see what the characters' discoveries are truly worth. And they change a lot.
Not only has the character changed, but they are able to change the world around them.
Quick tips to make step eight shine:
- Don't hold back. Make this the biggest showdown of your story, whether that be a physical battle, an emotional punch, a huge triumph over inner demons, etc.
- Remember this is a circle. We want to show that the protagonist is returning to their place of comfort, but this time a changed person. The more you can thematically tie the ending to your beginning, the better it will read.
Chronology note: this climax takes place roughly between the 85 to 87% mark of your story. Bear in mind that there is still room for falling action once this section is done. You will still need to tie up any loose ends.
Examples of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Let's take a look at some better-known stories, and see how they implement Dan Harmon's Story Circle. While none of these were specifically intended to use this circle, you will start to see it pop up in almost every story you ever hear.
- You: Harry starts out in the familiar (albeit distressing) situation as an orphan living with his aunt and uncle who wants nothing to do with him.
- Need: Harry learns that he is a wizard and that he has untold possibilities ahead in his future.
- Go: Harry goes to Hogwarts, completely immersed in an unfamiliar world.
- Search: Harry learns various spells, gains friends and mentors, and learns to fly.
- Find: Harry finds what he thinks he wants when he learns that he has natural talent at Quidditch.
- Take: slightly overconfident, Harry believes that there is a conspiracy going on involving Professor Snape. He is thrown closer to an encounter with Lord Voldemort.
- Return: Harry defeats Voldemort and eventually returns to his home.
- Change: he is no longer the shy boy living under the stairs. He has changed, and his aunt and uncle know it.
While You Were Sleeping
- You: Lucy lives alone, working a tedious, boring job at a ticket booth.
- Need: she wants to have a family, and specifically wants to marry a man that she sees every day at her job.
- Go: Lucy saves the man she is infatuated with from an oncoming train.
- Search: she lies to Peter's family and tells them that she is his fiancée.
- Find: Lucy gains the family she always wanted, but finds that she is falling for Peter's brother Jack.
- Take: it is revealed that she was not Peter's girlfriend, and it seems like her relationship with the family is over.
- Return: instead, Lucy marries Jack before returning to her work at the train station.
- Change: even though she is back in her familiar world, she is changed. She enjoys her life more now that she has Jack.
- You: Bryan, Liam Neeson's character, lives a comfortable life as a retired government operative.
- Need: Bryan wants to be a little more involved in the life of his daughter.
- Go: his daughter is kidnapped in Paris, and Bryan must go after her to save her.
- Search: Bryan searches for his daughter, using his past skill and expertise to lay waste to the opposition.
- Find: Bryan finds his daughter, but is not able to rescue her yet.
- Take: Bryan is forced to kill the head of the human-trafficking organization in order to save his daughter from them.
- Return: Bryan brings his daughter back from Paris, gaining more respect from her and her mother.
- Change: Bryan is able to go back to his familiar life, but this time with a new connection to his daughter.
How to Use the Dan Harmon Story Circle
The Story Circle is a great framework to make your story better. It is likely that you are already doing some of these things instinctively, as they have been ingrained in us through pop culture.
In fact, you will find that the Story Circle is applicable to almost anything. Even while telling a personal story to a friend, there is a good chance that you have unconsciously used this story structure.
For example, imagine telling someone about that time you got food poisoning:
- You: You were at home
- Need: You were hungry
- Go: You went out to eat
- Search: Spent a while looking at the menu
- Find: Ate your food
- Take: Got horribly sick
- Return: You went home
- Change: And never went back to that restaurant again
That is, essentially, the Story Circle. It is easy to incorporate into your storytelling process as well.
That said, I highly recommend Plottr as the perfect software to help you track and outline your story according to the Story Circle or any other number of story structures. It easily walks you through your outline, with pre-built templates to help you along.
I love it because it works very similar to using notecards on a wall, and it is very easy to switch things around and mix things up.
But by far the most useful feature is the ability to follow a template. And yes, they have Dan Harmon's Story Circle as one of them.