How Screenwriters Can Use Dan Harmon's "Circle Theory of Story"
If Joseph Campbell's 17 Stages of the Monolyth story structure is too complicated for screenwriters, Dan Harmon (creator and writer behind Community and Rick and Morty) and his Circle Theory of Story is an easier option that you can apply to the development of your stories and characters.
Joseph Campbell's breakdown of mythology storytelling has captivated writers within the literary, television, and film platforms for decades, offering a proverbial map to the journey that a character embarks on — and the many stages of challenges and conflicts that they are tasked with overcoming.
Chris Vogler later simplified those seventeen stages into twelve with his book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
His breakdowns compacted Campbell's monomyth stages to better fit the narrative process of writing novels and screenplays.
- The Ordinary World — The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
- The Call to Adventure — Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
- Refusal of the Call — The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
- Meeting with the Mentor — The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
- Crossing the Threshold — At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies — The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
- Approach — The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
- The Ordeal — Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
- The Reward — The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
- The Road Back — About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
- The Resurrection — At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
- Return with the Elixir — The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
Dan Harmon took that compaction even further. In the late 1990s, he was struggling with a screenplay and began to draw circles, searching for a way to break the code of the storytelling process.
"I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this," he told Wired, referring to how stories are told. "Some simplicity."
He came up with an algorithm of sorts that compacts a story's narrative into an eight-stage circle theory — similar to what Campbell and Vogler developed in their own writings, but a bit more accessible and broad.
Harmon began to use this theory in all of his writing jobs and the eventual writers' rooms of Community and Rick and Morty. Drawings of his circle theory are a common decoration in those rooms.
Harmon later began to share his theory on a blog:
Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we'd naturally do.
Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.
Divide the circle again horizontally.
Starting from the 12 o'clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.
Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.
Here we go, down and dirty:
- 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.
Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return — diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it's hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.
According to the Wired article, Harmon refers to each circle that he creates — which can easily be deciphered as each story he tells in each episode of each show he works on — as embryos. Each of his embryos contains the necessary elements to tell a satisfying story.
When he's working on an episode, either by himself or with his writers, each embryo has to contain these elements — otherwise, they are invalid and must be worked on and figured out.
Even now, when he watches movies or television, his algorithm appears.
"I can’t not see that circle," he says. "It’s tattooed on my brain."
In subsequent blog posts, he quickly states that his theory is not full proof like many other gurus will say.
"There are some exceptions to everything, but that's called style, not structure."
So while you can apply a certain structure to any given story, the exceptions that are made on your part portrays the style that you develop for yourself in your own writing, whether that is present from script-to-script or through everything you work on.
Harmon then goes into detail on what each stage means, which we've summarized below. He also attributes a single word to each stage to simplify things even more for writers.
1. YOU — A Character Is in a Zone of Comfort
This is simply where you establish the protagonist in their world. Harmon states that in order for the audience to better place themselves in that character's shoes, it's best to show that character in a setting that they can identify with.
In Die Hard, we don't open with John McClane battling bad guys. We see him on a plane and learn that he's afraid of flying. We can identify with that.
2. NEED — But They Want Something
This is where the character's "perfect" world is revealed to be nothing of the sort. This could be referred to as the Call to Adventure, but Harmon points out that "calls to adventure" don't have to be delivered by some messenger, as usually implied in Campbell's and Vogler's breakdowns.
This stage is where you showcase a need that your protagonist desires. It can be a physical item, often found in adventure movies like the Indiana Jones trilogy or through MacGuffins found in spy thrillers like the James Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. It can also be a state of mind, metaphor, or piece of knowledge that the protagonist seeks, desires, or needs.
In Die Hard, we learn that McClane's marriage is in jeopardy. He loves his wife and his wife loves him, but they've found themselves at a crossroads and neither of them knows where to go. Harmon quips, "If you could read the [McClane's] mind, you might find him wishing there was something he could do to save his marriage."
3. GO —They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation
This is where the concept of your screenplay comes into play — the core situation and conflict. They're challenged by something. Their comfortable world is rocked.
In Jaws, it's when Brody realizes that a shark is ravaging his island.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it's when Andy is forced by his co-workers to go out and meet women.
In Die Hard, it's when the terrorists take over the Nakatomi Tower.
4. SEARCH — Adapt to It
Harmon says, "Christopher Vogler calls this phase of a feature script 'friends, enemies and allies.' Hack producers call it the 'training phase.' I prefer to stick with Joseph Campbell's title, 'The Road of Trials,' because it's less specific. I've seen too many movies where our time is wasted watching a hero literally 'train' in a forest clearing because someone got the idea it was a necessary ingredient. The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it's sink or swim."
In Die Hard, McClane adapts to his situation after he initially hesitates to kill a terrorist. He almost dies in the process. When the terrorist tells him that next time he shouldn't hesitate to kill someone, McClane shoots him full of bullets and thanks him for the advice. From that point on, McClane has adapted to his predicament and never hesitates again.
5. FIND — Get What They Wanted
This may seem to denote a positive part of the character's story, but it's far from that.
This is the turning point of the script. Despite getting something that they've been searching or yearning for, they realize that in order to enjoy this newfound thing, they're going to need to survive the conflict at hand.
Harmon makes note that this stage is directly opposite of the first stage, where the character was comfortable. Now it's time to put that character in the most uncomfortable position they've been in.
In Die Hard, McClane has just suffered a horrible blow. Hans ordered his right-hand mind to join him in shooting the glass. Now, barefoot McClane is forced to run to safety through a floor full of broken glass. The result is a hero that is bloodied and hurting. He crawls into a bathroom to nurse his wound. Al, his policeman friend on the radio communicating from outside of the building, senses that McClane is in a bad place. McClane then begins to reflect upon his life, realizing that he may not make it. It is in this moment that he realizes everything he did wrong in his marriage.
So in essence, he has gotten what he wanted. He has learned that in order to save his marriage, he must be less stubborn. He shares this with Al in hopes that he'll pass on a special message. "She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times... but she's never heard me say I'm sorry."
The thing the character receives at this stage can be metaphorical, physical, or a piece of knowledge or realization that will help get them what they want.
6. TAKE — Pay a Heavy Price for It
This is the second turning point — sometimes it's a twist or a realization of the character. They've gotten what they wanted, but now they have to survive, figuratively or literally, to tell the tale.
This is also where the protagonist will face their toughest conflicts.
In Die Hard, McClane has survived the glass attack. He's still alive and he's finally acquired the epiphany he needs to save his marriage. But there's something looming. McClane wonders why Hans was so obsessed with finding the detonators — and what was he doing on that roof when he first met him in person?
He then discovers that the roof is rigged with C4 explosives. He knows that Hans doesn't plan on letting the hostages go alive. When he rushes to contact Al on the radio to let the police and FBI know that it's a double-cross, Hans's right-hand man appears.
This leads to a no holds barred fight, which in of itself leads to McClane's greatest challenge of killing the rest of the terrorists, getting the hostages off of the rigged roof, and evading the helicopter gunfire of the FBI. Not to mention surviving a leap from the building as the explosives go off.
7. RETURN — Then Return to the Familiar Situation
This is where the protagonist ascends towards their familiar situation that they left in the opening couple of stages. The conflict isn't over just yet, but they have overcome their most difficult challenges. Now they are rushing towards the goal.
If it's a romantic comedy, it's the rush to the airport where the love interest is about to board the plane.
If it's an action flick, it's where the final car chase ensues leading the hero to saving the world.
In Crocodile Dundee, it's where she rushes into the subway to find Mick and profess her love.
In Die Hard, it's where McClane has survived the explosion and is now rushing to find his wife, only to see that Hans has taken her hostage and McClane only has two bullets left to save her. He no longer has the machine guns he acquired, the explosives he stole, or the anonymity he had when Hans didn't know who he was and who Holly was married to. He's back in the familiar place of being a cop with a gun, trying to save his marriage.
8. CHANGE — Having Changed
This is where the protagonist applies the changes they've made, the physical item they've finally found, or the awakening they've undergone — and now must finally put an end to the conflict at hand.
In Liar Liar, Fletcher pleads his case in the court of law after learning the error of his ways in using lies to cover for the mistakes he's made, or for the mistakes of others in the context of his clients. Instead, he uses the truth to win his case. And in turn, wins over his son's love once again.
In Die Hard, McClane is back to a familiar situation, face-to-face with his wife, but with Hans and an underling in his way. But he's learned a few things. He's learned to be inventive to survive. He's also learned to never hesitate to kill someone.
Just when we think he's forgotten that last part as he surrenders his empty machine gun, we see that he has his trusted Police-issue sidearm taped to his back. He doesn't hesitate. Instead, only waiting for the right moment to make his move. And when he does, he's killed the remaining threats (or so we think) and he has his wife back.
Now he's a changed man. But the change isn't over yet.
When Hans's right-hand man has somehow survived, he takes aim at McClane with eyes of vengeance — until he's shot down by Al, who had been struggling with the regret of drawing his weapon and shooting an unarmed kid. Through McClane's actions, Al learned not to hesitate as well.
Read ScreenCraft's 5 Lessons “Die Hard” Can Teach Screenwriters!
This Circle Theory of Story from Dan Harmon is like any story structure, it works great in hindsight but doesn't always prove to be true in the end — or during the writing process.
The point for utilizing such structures and theories is to get you thinking about your stories and characters in more detail — through more levels of depth.
Harmon admits that no structure is the end-all-be-all. However, among his, Campbell's, and Vogler's, Harmon's is clearly a more simple approach that applies to so many more stories.
It's simple. And you can apply your own changes to create your own structure and style.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies