Dan Harmon’s Story Circle in 8 Easy Steps

Posted on Nov 18, 2022

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Written by P.J McNulty

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Structuring your fiction book is an essential part of keeping readers entertained and engaged. Without a good structure, you run the risk of your brilliant characters and exciting scenes being totally ignored due to a poorly-structured or unengaging plot.

But which story structure should you use?

Although most story structures are more similar than they are different, with most following The Hero’s Journey, there are modern twists on the fundamentals you can learn from. 

One such story structure is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. This is the very same story structure showrunner and writer Dan Harmon uses to create raving fans of sagas like Community, and Rick and Morty.

If you’re interested in seeing if Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a good fit for your next book, read on to discover what it is and how to use it.

What is Harmon’s plot embryo?

You might have come across the term ‘Harmon’s Plot Embryo’ while seeking out information on the Story Circle. This is just an alternative name for the same concept. It refers to the fact an outline is only ever a potential story or an embryo. It is down to you as the author to develop the embryo into a fully-formed story ready for readers to enjoy.

How to use the Dan Harmon Story Circle

Dan Harmon’s story circle is focused on the internal and external development of a protagonist over the course of the story. Therefore, it’s most suitable if your intended story centers around one main protagonist or a group of main characters who stick together for most of the story. 

Naturally, you could adapt the Story Circle to a multiple main character plot, but while you get familiar with it, it’s advisable to stick with a single protagonist or group of protagonists.

Now that you know the basic concept behind Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, let’s go through each of its eight stages.

The eight stages of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle are:

1 – In a zone of comfort 

The first stage of the Story Circle is to establish normality for your main character and give the reader an insight into what everyday life looks like for them.

Part of what makes fiction so gripping is the break from normality that a plot provides. However, that only works if the middle section of a story is different from how it begins.

Showing what your main character’s life was like before the main events of your plot creates the potential for a gripping contrast and a sense of adventure for your readers as things change.

2 – They desire something

As humans, we’re hardwired to stay in our comfort zone and maintain a sense of safety. It’s only when a strong desire for something interrupts that desire for normality do we take action and risks of the type associated with gripping fiction.

The desire your main character has will depend entirely upon their personality and the scenario of your story. If you’re writing genre fiction, you should keep in mind the conventions and expectations readers will have in order to ensure they are met. For example, romance protagonists may seek someone for a relationship, thriller detectives might desire to solve a crime or catch a killer, and fantasy heroes are likely to desire the outcome of an epic quest.

3 – Enter an unfamiliar situation

The third step requires your protagonist to enter an unfamiliar environment or situation in order to pursue their desire from stage 2. This stage is partly why it’s so important to establish the zone of comfort initially. Without fully knowing what normality looks like for your main character, your reader won’t be able to appreciate the unfamiliar situation they find themselves in.

4 – Adapt to the situation

This stage of the Story Circle shows how your protagonist adapts to the new situation they find themselves in. For example, consider The Hunger Games. Katniss has been placed in an unfamiliar situation (being in The Capitol ahead of the Games) but manages to adapt through a mixture of advice from her mentor and her existing archery skills. 

5 – Get what they desired

The fifth stage of the Story Circle shows your main character achieving their initial desire. They may suffer some setbacks along the way, but they eventually achieve what they set out to do. However, you’ll notice that this is far from the final stage. That’s because, much like in real life, the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ definitely applies to the Story Circle.

6 – Pay a heavy price

Stage 6 of the Story Circle brings to mind the phrase “man plans, God laughs”. Even though your main character has achieved their initial aim, they end up paying a heavy price. This can take various forms. 

For example, let’s say your character’s pursuit of their initial aim caused them to lose something even more important along the way, such as achieving their desired material success but at the expense of something more meaningful, such as love.

Or perhaps your detective protagonist finally catches the suspect they had long-pursued, only to find out that doing so had allowed the real threat to roam free.

By incorporating stage 6 of the Story Circle into your plot, you give your book a sense of bittersweet emotional depth that will help to keep readers hooked

7 – Return to their familiar situation 

As a result of paying the heavy price in stage 6, your main character returns to something close to their starting state although with a new set of circumstances.

8 – Having changed

The final stage of the Story Circle reflects the fact that even though your main character’s external situation seems to be the same as when the story began, the internal change they have been through means things are no longer the same at all. 

Because the Story Circle is circular as opposed to having a defined end, the change of circumstances actually sets your protagonist up to have a new set of desires, thus going around the circle once more. This is a good model to use if you intend to write a series or deploy the same character in a sequel. 

Other story structures to consider

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a great approach to plotting your main character’s journey. But what other options are out there? 

If you want to try a different structure for your next fiction book, consider:

  1. Three Act Structure. A simple and versatile story structure, commonly used on screen and stage. 
  2. The Hero’s Journey. The most classic and widely used fiction structure out there.
  3. The Five Milestones. A proven fiction story structure loved by Self Publishing School students. 

Other elements of successful fiction

Now that you have a proven story structure to use in your next fiction book, let’s briefly consider some other elements you will need to succeed.

  1. Characters. Even the best use of the Story Circle will fall flat if your characters don’t engage your readers. Consider how to create a cast of main and supporting characters as well as the villains, adversaries, and antagonists they will face along the way. 
  2. Setting. Sometimes, the setting is an integral part of creating a story that stays in the minds of readers long after the final page. Fiction fans only need to think of Mordor or Hogwarts to know how true this can be. 
  3. Marketing. As an indie author, you have a lot more responsibility than simply crafting a great work of fiction. Ensure your book has a marketing plan in place prior to launch to see your hard work pay off. 

Succeeding as a fiction author requires you to be aware of many different factors to keep readers happy. 

Hopefully, with Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, you now have everything you need to create an adventure worthy of Rick and Morty or Troy and Abed!

Next Steps

Ready to start writing your book and taking the steps to get it published?

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