Understanding Dan Harmon’s Story Circle


There’s a good chance you’ve come across the work of Dan Harmon without even realizing it. As the mastermind behind hit shows like “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” Harmon has made a significant impact on the world of television writing. But what exactly is his secret sauce? How does he create such captivating and engaging stories that keep us coming back for more?

Who is Dan Harmon?

Before we dive into the depths of Harmon’s storytelling genius, let’s get to know the man behind the magic. Dan Harmon is an American writer, producer, and podcaster who rose to fame through his work in television. Known for his offbeat sense of humor and unconventional approaches to storytelling, Harmon has become a beloved figure in the industry.

But who is the real Dan Harmon? Born on January 3, 1973, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harmon grew up with a passion for storytelling. As a child, he would often entertain his friends and family with imaginative tales that showcased his creative mind. Little did he know that these early experiences would shape his future career in television.

Harmon’s journey into the world of television began in the late 1990s when he co-created the comedy show “Heat Vision and Jack” alongside Rob Schrab. Though the show was never picked up, it served as a stepping stone for Harmon, leading to opportunities that would eventually solidify his place in the industry.

Harmon’s Impact on Television Writing

Harmon’s impact on television writing cannot be overstated. He has spearheaded a revolution in storytelling, pushing boundaries and breaking traditional molds. His influence can be felt in the way modern shows approach character development, plot structure, and even humor.

One of the key elements that sets Harmon apart from other writers is his commitment to character-driven narratives. He believes that a strong emotional connection with the characters is essential for a story to resonate with the audience. This philosophy has become a guiding principle for many aspiring writers who strive to create compelling and relatable characters.

Furthermore, Harmon’s approach to plot structure has revolutionized the way stories are told on television. He introduced the concept of the Story Circle, a narrative framework inspired by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. This circular structure allows for a seamless flow of story, ensuring that every episode or season feels like a cohesive journey.

Needless to say, Harmon has left an indelible mark on the world of television, inspiring countless aspiring writers and captivating audiences around the globe.

Notable Works by Dan Harmon

Some of Harmon’s most notable works include the critically acclaimed sitcom “Community” and the mind-bending animated series “Rick and Morty.” These shows display Harmon’s unparalleled ability to craft complex narratives that are both intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant.

“Community,” which aired from 2009 to 2015, follows a diverse group of students at a community college as they navigate through hilarious and often absurd situations. The show’s clever writing and meta-humor have garnered a dedicated fanbase, solidifying its status as a cult classic.

“Rick and Morty,” on the other hand, takes viewers on interdimensional adventures with its eccentric titular characters. The show’s blend of science fiction, dark humor, and existential themes has earned it widespread critical acclaim and a passionate following.

But what’s the secret behind Harmon’s storytelling brilliance? How does he consistently create narratives that feel fresh and engaging? The answer lies in the concept of the Story Circle.

The Story Circle, as mentioned earlier, is a narrative framework that Harmon developed. It consists of eight stages: a character is in a zone of comfort, they want something, they enter an unfamiliar situation, they adapt to it, they get what they wanted, they pay a heavy price, they return to their familiar situation, and they have changed as a result.

By utilizing the Story Circle, Harmon is able to create narratives that feel satisfying and complete. It allows him to explore complex character arcs and deliver emotionally impactful stories that resonate with audiences on a deep level.

So, the next time you find yourself immersed in a Dan Harmon show, take a moment to appreciate the storytelling genius behind it. Through his unconventional approaches and commitment to pushing boundaries, Harmon has forever changed the landscape of television writing.

The Concept of the Story Circle

The Story Circle, also known as the Hero’s Journey, is a narrative framework used by writers to create compelling and satisfying stories. It’s no surprise that Harmon has embraced this structure, as it provides a solid foundation for his storytelling genius.

But what exactly is the Story Circle and how does it work? Let’s delve deeper into the origins and influences of this narrative framework.

Origins and Influences of the Story Circle

The Story Circle has its roots in ancient mythology and is commonly associated with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory. Campbell identified a universal pattern in heroic tales, where the protagonist embarks on an adventure, faces challenges, undergoes transformation, and returns home changed.

Harmon’s use of the Story Circle is heavily influenced by Campbell’s work, as well as other narrative frameworks like Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey.” He takes these theories and infuses them with his own unique style, creating a storytelling formula that resonates with audiences.

Now that we understand the origins and influences of the Story Circle, let’s explore the eight steps that make up this narrative framework.

The Eight Steps of the Story Circle

The Story Circle consists of eight distinct steps, each serving a specific purpose in the narrative. These steps are:

  1. The character is in their ordinary world.
  2. They are called to adventure.
  3. They resist the call but are persuaded to embark on the journey.
  4. They face trials and meet allies.
  5. They reach an inner revelation.
  6. They face a climactic ordeal.
  7. They experience a resurrection and return home transformed.
  8. They bring back the elixir, benefiting their community.

Each of these steps plays a crucial role in the overall narrative structure. The first step, where the character is in their ordinary world, sets the stage for the story and introduces the audience to the protagonist’s life before the adventure begins. This helps create a connection between the character and the audience, making their journey more relatable.

As the story progresses, the protagonist is called to adventure, which often involves a disruption of their ordinary life. This call to adventure sets the plot in motion and propels the character into a new and unfamiliar world.

However, it’s not always easy for the character to accept this call. They may resist, fearing the unknown or feeling unprepared. But through persuasion, they are convinced to embark on the journey, setting the stage for the challenges and trials they will face.

Throughout their journey, the character encounters trials and meets allies who help them along the way. These trials test the character’s strength, resilience, and determination, pushing them to their limits and forcing them to grow.

Amidst the challenges, the character reaches an inner revelation, a moment of self-discovery or realization. This revelation often serves as a turning point in the story, where the character’s perspective shifts, and they gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their purpose.

But the character’s journey is far from over. They face a climactic ordeal, a final test that forces them to confront their greatest fears or enemies. This ordeal is often the most intense and dramatic part of the story, where the character’s transformation is put to the ultimate test.

After facing the climactic ordeal, the character experiences a resurrection, a metaphorical rebirth. They emerge from the ordeal transformed, having overcome their inner and outer obstacles. This transformation is a pivotal moment in the story, as the character returns home with newfound wisdom and strength.

Finally, the character brings back the elixir, a metaphorical representation of the lessons they have learned and the benefits they can now provide to their community. This step completes the story circle, bringing the narrative full circle and leaving the audience with a sense of fulfillment.

These eight steps provide a roadmap for Harmon as he constructs his narratives, allowing him to create stories that feel both familiar and surprising at the same time. By following this narrative structure, Harmon is able to tap into the universal elements that make stories compelling and resonate with audiences.

Applying the Story Circle to Harmon’s Work

Now that we understand the Story Circle, let’s take a closer look at how Harmon applies this framework to his own work. Two shows that serve as prime examples of his storytelling prowess are “Community” and “Rick and Morty.”

The Story Circle in ‘Community’

“Community” is a sitcom set within the fictional Greendale Community College. Harmon uses the Story Circle to bring together a diverse cast of characters and weave them into a cohesive narrative. Each character undergoes their own personal journey, facing challenges and growing along the way.

From Jeff Winger’s transformation from selfish lawyer to caring leader, to Abed Nadir’s exploration of his own identity through pop culture references, Harmon’s use of the Story Circle allows for deep character development and emotional resonance.

The Story Circle in ‘Rick and Morty’

In “Rick and Morty,” Harmon takes the Story Circle to new dimensions (literally). The animated series follows the interdimensional adventures of the eccentric scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson Morty Smith. Through their wild escapades, Harmon explores existential themes and pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling.

The Story Circle acts as the backbone of each episode, providing a framework for the characters’ journeys and allowing Harmon to delve into complex ideas while maintaining a sense of humor and entertainment. The result is a show that transcends genres and captivates audiences of all ages.

The Influence of the Story Circle on Modern Storytelling

Harmon’s use of the Story Circle has had a profound impact on modern storytelling. His success has inspired other creators to experiment with narrative structures and push the boundaries of traditional storytelling.

Other Shows Utilizing the Story Circle

Many shows, both comedies, and dramas, have embraced the Story Circle in their own unique ways. “BoJack Horseman,” “The Good Place,” and “Stranger Things” are just a few examples of shows that utilize the Story Circle as a tool for crafting compelling narratives.

By incorporating the Story Circle into their storytelling toolkit, these shows are able to create immersive and satisfying experiences that keep audiences hooked from start to finish.

The Story Circle in Film and Literature

Harmon’s influence extends beyond the realm of television. The Story Circle has also found its way into films and literature, inspiring storytellers to think outside the box and create narratives that resonate with audiences on a deeper level.

From blockbuster films like “Star Wars” to timeless novels like “The Lord of the Rings,” the influence of the Story Circle can be seen in countless works of fiction. It has become a powerful tool in the hands of creators, enabling them to craft stories that touch hearts and leave a lasting impact.

Criticisms and Limitations of the Story Circle

While the Story Circle has undoubtedly proven to be a valuable tool for many creators, it is not without its criticisms and limitations.

Potential Drawbacks of the Story Circle

One criticism of the Story Circle is that it can lead to formulaic storytelling. Some argue that relying too heavily on this structure can result in predictable narratives that lack originality.

Additionally, not all stories fit neatly into the eight steps of the Story Circle. Some narratives may require a different approach, and forcing them into this structure may hinder their creative potential.

Responses to Criticisms

Despite these criticisms, Harmon’s use of the Story Circle has proven time and time again to be effective and engaging. It’s important to remember that the Story Circle is just a tool, and it’s up to the storyteller to use it in a way that serves their unique vision.

Harmon’s ability to infuse his own style and flair into the Story Circle is what sets his work apart. He uses the structure as a guide, but allows himself the freedom to deviate when necessary, resulting in narratives that are anything but formulaic.

Ultimately, the Story Circle is just one tool in a writer’s toolbox. And in the hands of a master storyteller like Dan Harmon, it becomes a powerful instrument for crafting narratives that entertain, inspire, and resonate with audiences.

So the next time you find yourself drawn into one of Harmon’s shows, take a moment to appreciate the intricate storytelling at play. Behind the laughter and adventure lies a masterful use of the Story Circle, guiding characters through transformative journeys and giving us stories that will stand the test of time.

Understanding Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is not just about dissecting his techniques; it’s about appreciating the art of storytelling and recognizing the power it holds in capturing our hearts and minds.