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What is Dan Harmon's Story Circle and how does it work? [Updated 2022]

By Brad Dehnert

Ever wonder how Dan Harmon (the creator of Community and Rick and Morty) writes an episode of Rick and Morty? It all starts with an eight-step story breakdown – often called a beat sheet – widely known as "Dan Harmon's Story Circle". It's the tool he uses to, "Remove all the hard and repeated work from the task of breaking a story."

Diagram of Dan Harmon's Story Circle beat sheet

Introduction

The Story Circle contains eight story beats (which we'll get into below) that define certain events or epiphanies that the main focus character experiences throughout the story, and helps to guide the writer through the process of developing the plot (either for a book or TV episode – any story, really).

For instance, near the beginning of the story you'll need to define the character's need or want (such as 'wanting to be heroic' of to 'always do the right thing') which will later lead to them discovering the unintended consequences of getting that need or want (e.g., being a hero means a lot of personal sacrifice, or not everyone agrees on what 'the right thing' is in every situation).

How to use the Story Circle

Dan Harmon has said that the Story Circle is how he "breaks" a new story. That is, this is the tool he uses to flesh out a smaller, simpler idea for an episode into a complete and compelling story for a Rick and Morty episode, and make sure that it hits all the needed beats.

In that way, the Story Circle works just like every other beat sheet out there in that it gives you a high-level picture of what your story will look like before you start writing, and you can think of it almost like a check list of things to include. So, no, it won't give you a scene-by-scene breakdown or anything more refined than that, but for shorter stories (such as a 22-minute TV script or a subplot) it might get you close.

That said, once you have your eight beats for the Story Circle, it shouldn't take too long to jot down several bullet points beneath each beat that will become your scenes. That isn't a requirement, though, and you might be happy to just start writing your story or script immediately with nothing more than the finished Story Circle.

The Hero's Journey

At a high level, the Story Circle is a tweaked version of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" (also known as the monomyth), so if you have any familiarity with that then the Story Circle should feel familiar.

For those who aren't familiar with Joseph Campbell's work, the very broad structure of the Hero's Journey has the main character start out in their "normal world" before being thrust onto the path of an adventure (often after first refusing that call). Once on the adventure, they'll often get what they want but experience unintended consequences before returning home again, now being changed. (There are many sub-steps and features of the Hero's Journey that I've glossed over, but these are the major points also shared by the Story Circle.)

The Story Circle's Eight Beats

The eight beats happen in sequential order and describe a focus character's journey through this week's adventure. So, as you read through the descriptions below, keep in mind that each of these things happens in this exact order. Also remember that they aren't evenly spaced throughout the story. That it, some of the beats will take up more screen time (or more pages in your book) than others, and that some beats will be short, single moments within a plot (such as a character realising their need) while other beats will occur across one or several scenes.

Each beat has a longer title, but Harmon also gives them a one-word identifier that also reads like a complete description:

You - Need - Leave - Search - Find - Take - Return - Change

We can just about read this as: "You have a need, and must leave to search for it. Once you find it and take it, you'll return home changed."

(The quotes are taken or paraphrased from the video linked to at the end.)


  1. You - Comfort Zone
  2. Need - Need or Desire
  3. Leave - Unfamiliar Situation
  4. Search - Adaptation
  5. Find - Get What They Want
  6. Take - But Pay a Price
  7. Return - Return to Comfort
  8. Change - Having Changed

1. You - Comfort Zone

"Every story starts with a character that the viewer/reader/etc. can identify with."

'Identify' is a pretty broad term in story writing, and it can refer to just about anything, or might even be aspirational. These things include:

  • Physical appearance: This could be ethnicity or skin colour, but could also be a hair style or clothing choice, or maybe a physical disability.
  • Socio-economic situation: A broke family trying to get by (The Middle); A middle-class family (Dawson's Creek)
  • Physical location or living situation: Such as people living in a country town (Letter Kenny), or students in a boarding school (Harry Potter), or a blended family (The Brady Bunch, or just about any sit-com from the 80s and 90s)

There can be a lot of overlap with these things, but you'll want your readers to focus in on a 'comfort zone' that relates to the themes of your story and the need/desire (see #2) your character will explore.

Also, it's important to note that this is rarely a literal comfort zone for your characters. In fact, in some story structure formats, this is more accurately referred to as your character's 'ordinary world'. I doubt that the youngest child in a poor family of five kids whose parents can't find jobs finds sharing a bed with their siblings 'comfortable'. But, usually, this status quo is easier for them to deal with than the hard work/high risk/pain needed to change their situation (which is what their story will be all about!).

In Star Wars, this comfort zone (or 'ordinary world') is Luke living on the moisture farm on Tatooine. It's definitely not a physically comfortable place, but it's his 'ordinary life', and the only life he's ever known.

Examples from Rick and Morty

In Rick and Morty, this often starts with the family around the dinner table bickering about one thing or another that they're unsatisfied with, such as Morty missing too much school or Beth and Summer never getting enough of Rick's attention (a very familiar situation for most, save for the sci-fi backdrop). Or, we might find Rick and Morty at the end of one of their 'ordinary' and uneventful adventures to some alien planet.

2. Need - Need or Desire

"This character has a need or wish."

This could be a more physical need like finding food and shelter, or paying off a loan shark who's going to kill them, but it can also be more existential like wanting to be included or find validation.

For a much deeper and satisfying story, you'll also want to think about the 'deeper level' beneath this surface want and desire. Sure, paying off the mob boss is important, but what the character really needs to do is give up on get-rich-quick schemes that he takes out risky loans to finance and, instead, get a boring but steady job that'll support his family.

Story structure books will often ask you to figure out why the character hasn't yet been able to achieve their goal. Is there a societal problem or some other discrimination standing in their way? Do they have a mental block holding them back? Are they too busy trying to keep their head metaphorically above water that they couldn't even dream of swimming for shore?

In Star Wars, Luke's desire is to leave Tatooine and "go to the academy" (which, at a deeper level, could probably be interpreted as a desire for a more meaningful life, or one of adventure), but every mention of it is met with resistance (no pun intended) from Uncle Owen. Sure, Luke could just leave, but he'd be leaving behind the only family he has, and that's not an easy thing for anyone to do.

Examples from Rick and Morty

There are recurring wants of many of the characters, such as Morty's lust for Jessica, or Beth wanting to bond with her father and make up for lost time, or Summer wanting to be included. Sometimes it's even just a need to 'get home alive'. Usually, though, some McGuffin in a particular episode focusses the particular desire, such as Morty wanting to use the time crystals to find the perfect path through time that ends with him married to Jessica.

This is also a great example that, especially in a series with lots of different stories (like episodic TV or a book series), that characters will have many wants and desires, but only one will be a focus of any given story.

3. Leave - Unfamiliar Situation

"This need/wish causes them to go across a threshold."

This is the 'call to adventure', where the main character makes the choice (or the choice is made for them) to leave their comfort zone and go off in search of their needs and desires. This is the first big inflection point of the story. And – if you want to read way too much into things – you can even see this represented in the titular Story Circle where the path and curve of the circle inflects here and bends in a different direction, reflecting how things are now going to go very differently for our character.

You can also view the 'downward' curve of the circle at this point as reflecting a downward spiral of the character's life as they get further and further from their beginning comfort zone (farther from their 'normal'). This is also just a single moment of decision in the story where the character decides to leave (or is pushed through a portal).

In Star Wars, this is Luke ultimately agreeing to join Obi-Wan on his quest to find Princess Leia.

Examples from Rick and Morty

Quite often this is simply the characters jumping through a portal on their way to a destination, or leaving in Rick's space ship. The difference comes in why they left, such as Morty convincing Rick to answer the Vindicator's literal call to adventure.

4. Search - Adaptation

"They go down a road of trials, searching for something."

This is the meat and potatoes of your story and where all the "fun and games" happen. In a TV episode, this might only be 5-10 minutes, but, in a book, it'd be maybe a quarter of its entire length. In either case, it wouldn't usually last past the midpoint.

The way to think about this is: what does the character have to do to achieve their want or need? If their need is to pay off a loan shark, this is where we'd see them get the money to pay them back. If their need is to be heroic, we'd see their attempts at being heroic.

The particulars of this very much depend on your story and its world, though. For instance, in a drama, 'getting money for a loan shark' could be groveling to their snobby parents they haven't spoken to in a decade. In a sci-fi movie, maybe they sell an alien artefact. In a crime movie, they might rob a liquor store or try to counterfeit $20 bills.

Again, in shorter media, there is probably only one or two examples of this per story. In longer media, such as books, there's often a cycle of repeated attempt and failure, attempt and failure (the try/fail cycle) until they reach the midpoint (#5, Finding it).

In Star Wars, this is following Obi-Wan off-world, learning the ways of the Jedi, exploring the Death Star, etc.

Examples from Rick and Morty

Examples of this include the Vindicators beginning Rick's trials, or Morty doing his best to follow the time crystals to win Jessica's love.

5. Find - Get What They Want

"They find it, whether they like it or not."

This is the midpoint of your story. After the trials and try/fail cycle of #4, the character will finally achieve their high-level goal here. But, in our example of a character having a surface-level desire which actually motivates a deeper need, this would be them only satisfying that surface-level want. After this, they still need to dig deeper.

This is also usually only a moment within a single scene, whether you're writing a book or a script. It's also where the Story Circle inflects again, this time starting to veer upward and take the character back towards their (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) home.

In Star Wars, this is the point where Luke and Han finally rescue Princess Leia. (Star Wars is a good and bad example for these structures because while it hits all the beats – good – the timings of these beats is all over the place – bad.) From here, they can leave the Death Star for the safety of the Rebellion, but we know there are many more troubles to come.

Examples from Rick and Morty

In the Vindicators episode, this is the point where they head out to fight World Ender (and after Morty gets his own Vindicators jacket!), but before the reveal that Rick has already solved their problem – and caused a whole lot more!

6. Take - But Pay a Price

"The thing they find kicks their ass"

This is where all the "unintended consequences" will fall on our character like a tonne of bricks. Did they want to become a hero? Well, they're going to find out that they have a lot more enemies now and that saving someone else's family has put their own in danger. Or that paying off the loan shark was never going to free them from the debt.

This will often be a longer section of your story, similar in length to #4, and we'll get to see more fun examples of what the world has to throw at our characters.

For instance, if our wannabe crime gang counterfeited a bunch of money to pay off their debts (in the hopes to now go straight), the loan shark might see their value and threaten them to counterfeit even more money, putting them at more risk (both from the loan shark and from the cops).

In Star Wars, part of Luke getting to leave the farm and go out on a grand adventure is watching his mentor, Obi-Wan, be murdered by Darth Vader, not to mention his own brushes with death.

Examples from Rick and Morty

After Rick's black-out night is revealed to the Vindicators, their 'paying the price' is them having to deal with Rick's Saw traps. If Morty had never demanded that they go off and play hero – or that Rick take it seriously – this never would have happened.

7. Return - Return to Comfort

"After all that, they return to the world they started in"

This will usually happen in the last part of your story, after the antagonist has been defeated. Sometimes it'll involve a literal return to where they started (the country village, the family home, the aircraft carrier), but not always. Really, this step is just about the heroes getting out of the danger or drama of the main plot. They'll then have the time to reflect on their adventure, and if attaining their need/want from #2 was a good or bad thing in the end.

And that's an important question to answer here: Was the adventure good or bad? Did the character lose the thing they needed (or never really get it to begin with), and is that actually a good thing? In a more straight-forward story, the hero will win the prize and be successful, but sometimes they'll miss their shot but realise that it's actually okay. Maybe they found something better along the way. It's all about perspective and what they've learned about themselves and the world (see #8).

In a crime drama, this would be the point where they're finally done with crime (either because they made one last score, or because they freed themselves of any blackmail and baggage trapping them in that life).

In Star Wars, this is the final scene where Han and Luke are safely in the Rebel compound about to be given medals.

Examples from Rick and Morty

This is often seen with the family arriving back at home and maybe sitting down together to watch TV (a much more literal 'return home'). For the Vindicators, this was the duo arriving at the concert – and the safety of the public.

8. Change - Having Changed

"After coming back, they realise that they've changed."

This is where that success or failure is really examined. Look back at #1 (the character's 'ordinary world' or 'comfort zone') and ask yourself how it's now changed for them.

Did the poor family manage to upgrade to a bigger house? Or are they just more content in their life situation?

Did the farm boy desperate for adventure realise how much he prefers a simpler – and safer! – life tending the fields? Or did he find the buried treasure and buy a castle?

Often in episodic TV, things tend to be "reset" by the end of the episode (and especially by the start of the next episode), but this last image we see is the thing that might survive and carry on through the rest of the series.

In Star Wars, the last awards scene pulls double-duty with #7, because here Luke gets to experience the high life of a hero who's no longer stuck on the farm. And Han gets to see himself as something other than a self-centred smuggler and part of something bigger.

Examples from Rick and Morty

In the Pickle Rick episode, after the family bickering about Rick doing everything he could to avoid the family and dealing with their problems, Beth and Rick find that they have some common ground and would actually enjoy spending time with each-other over a drink.

The Story Circle for B-plots and subplots

While the main focus of the Story Circle (and this article) is on the main plot of an episode or book, you can also use the Story Circle beat sheet for subplots! In fact, at that smaller scale, each of the eight beats might even describe the eight (or fewer) scenes needed to write the subplot.

I say fewer because, in a B-plot, some of the beats might occur in the same scene (such as their initial comfort zone and expression of desire), or the scene might pull double-duty with a scene from the A-plot (that is, you might have already written the scene showing the B-plot character's normal world by writing a scene for the main storyline).

An Example From Rick and Morty

An example of this in Rick and Morty would be one of the regular openers where the family is at the dinner table with Rick planning a big adventure (Rick and Morty's regular "comfort zone", or "normal world") while also seeing how, say, Jerry or Summer are treated by the family (usually with little respect or being undervalued – their "normal world"). In the A-plot, something else is established as Rick and Morty's "need/desire", but we'll then see Jerry's need to be respected by his family or father-in-law, or Summer's desire to be included.

There are several episodes where Summer tags along after underestimating how dangerous and difficult Rick and Morty's adventures can be, but while she'll often regret the decision to join in the moment, she'll always return to Earth either with a new appreciation for her grandpa and brother, or with some new self-confidence.

Story Circle Video

This is the original video Dan Harmon made to describe his Story Circle.

This short video describes the eight major story beats the focus character of the episode goes through, starting out in the 'normal world', having a need/desire that they find a way to satisfy, then having to deal with the (often unforeseen and unintended) ramifications of this before ending up where they began, but now a little bit different.

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Posted in Learn to Write on 2022-09-03 23:01:53 - Community, Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon, Learn to write
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