Story Structure: Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

How do you structure a story? We all know that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but is there any more depth to it than that? Yes, yes there is, and if you’ve ever tried to digest Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces you’ll know exactly how deep and complex story structure can get. For this reason, the universe gave us Dan Harmon and he, in turn, gave us his Story Circle.
The Story Circle is essentially a boiled down version of Campbell’s monomyth. Here, we’ll boil down the Story Circle for ease of understanding. Once you’ve got the idea, its well worth heading over and reading the original posts by Harmon himself as he goes into much more depth than I will here.

The Basic Structure Of Every Story


So let’s start with the basics. This is how every structurally sound story plays out:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.

Or, boiled down only to the most important bits:

1. You
2. Need
3. Go
4. Search
5. Find
6. Take
7. Return
8. Change.

Memorise it. It won’t be hard to, it’s already ingrained in the part of your brain that recognises a good story.

The Steps Explained

1. “You.”
All you need to do here is show your protagonist. We need to know where we are and who we’re following. This is exposition, a quick tour of the world we’re inhabiting. This is your character’s life, the world he lives in, his roots.

2. “Need.”
Now show the problem. The world has a flaw, all is not right, your character’s life is imperfect in some way. His need will drive his personal journey. Whatever problem is presented here, he is offered a way of solving it, of fulfilling his need. He might refuse to solve it straight away, but rest assured he will give in and begin his journey, because this need is what the story is really about.

3. “Go.”
Everything changes. Whatever the hook of your story is, the thing you tell your friends the story is about to get them excited, it begins right here. The protagonist is thrown into a new world, crossing the first threshold into the unknown. We’ve crossed into a dark, mysterious world and our protagonist cannot leave until he has completed the trials that lay ahead.

4. “Search.”
The protagonist can’t just get what he wants by wanting it — he has to work for it, earn it. Campbell calls this “The Road Of Trials”. This is where the protagonist proves himself, overcoming challenges and in the process gaining the tools he needs in preparation for the events ahead. He is confronting his own limitations.

5. “Find.”
He finds what he is looking for, whether he knew he was looking for it or not. His trials have paid off. He couldn’t have got here without them. This is an intense moment, a moment of naked joy, weightlessness and vulnerability. This is the story’s midpoint, and marks the moment when the universe stops pulling the protagonist around and he must act on his own volition in order to proceed. It may be tempting to stay here, but he moves forward nonetheless.

6. “Take.”
Now to begin the journey back to the familiar world. This won’t be easy in the least, it is its very own road of trials, set to prepare our protagonist for his return to the familiar world. These trials strip away any remaining ego and by the time he’s through every last one of them he has become a living god. These trials are the price he has to pay for the previous step and for his return to the familiar world.

7. “Return.”
The last threshold. This is an epiphanal, defining moment, returning at last to his world as a new man. His journey has taught him all it could, and by crossing this threshold he tells the world he is ready to show what he has learned.

8. “Change.”
And he does. The tools and powers he acquired on his road of trials, or “Search”, have completed him. He has one last thing to do, a thing for which he needed to complete this journey, and this is where he does it. And the universe will bend to his will and give him what he wants, because he has become more than a man.

Applying The Story Circle
Go back to the basic outline. Whenever you’re putting together a story, no matter what form, see how well you can fit it to the steps outlined there. If it’s too much of a struggle then you probably have a problem with the structure of your story. Use the steps to see if you can change the story to better fit the structure laid out here and you’ll find your story will be more engaging.
What you shouldn’t do is use the Story Circle as a starting point, that’s a one way street to a formulaic, boring plot. It’ll be structurally sound, but it’ll have no style and no creative edge. This is a tool to aid the structure of your story, not a paint by numbers guide on how to write one.
The important thing to remember is that you’ll know intuitively if your story is lacking structure because it’ll feel incomplete. The structure laid out here is not invented, it’s discovered. It’s ingrained in the human psyche, the definition of a good story in its basic form.

Now that you’ve read my boiled down version of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, you should head over and read the original posts for extra depth and theory. You should also try to spot this structure when you’re reading or watching a story and write down the steps. Post the results in the comments below.

As always, keep writing.

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4 Common Writing Tips You Should Ignore

If you’re anything like me and follow a lot of writing blogs (as you should) you’ll read a lot of great advice from established writers, publishers and the like. However, you’ll also come across a lot of truly awful advice. And it can be hard to separate the great from the godawful. Often the worst offenders are found in posts listing an obscene number of “Writing Tips”, many of which are repeated ad nauseum on every single list.

Here are four common writing tips I’ve encountered that you really should ignore:

“Writing is rewriting.”

No, no it isn’t. Writing is writing; rewriting is rewriting. They are two entirely different processes with different skills required to do them well.
Writing a first draft of anything is an unbridled creative experience, whether you have an outline or an in depth plan or no plan at all. It’s writing, it’s what you live for.
Rewriting is more controlled. You know where you’re going and what you’re doing. You’ve done it, now you’re doing it again having learned the lessons of the first draft. Rewriting can be a great thing, but it’s different to writing.
And it’s not always necessary.
Let me be clear: you should always go back to edit your work. Always. If you don’t, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself to get the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc. right the first time and that will distract you from writing creatively. But rewriting? That’s an extreme action, to rewrite a whole piece.
And very few people are suggesting you rewrite everything at least once, which is why “writing is rewriting” is awful advice. It’s snappy, memorable advice, but taken at face value it can be very damaging to an inexperienced writer.
Better advice would be: “Rewrites revive dead writing.”

“Just write, even if it’s bad.”

Sure, if you hate yourself. Now, I’m being a little unfair, this is a great way of overcoming writer’s block, but it’s not much use for someone who’s perfectly able to get the words out. In fact, it’s quite damaging.
If you write and write and all you’re doing is turning out bad work then you may as well not be writing for all the good it’s doing. There are better ways to spend your time. Write a paragraph. If it’s bad, analyse it and work out why you feel that way, then write it again. It’s better to slow down and fix problems, while improving your craft through self analysis, than to write something bad and dig yourself a hole that only the delete key can solve.
Even if you have writer’s block and feel like you just need to power through, this advice isn’t specific enough. It is much better when trying to get through writer’s block to just free write. Better than that, use your free writing productively, by doing a character’s inner monologue or riffing on a topic. By nature that kind of writing is mostly throwaway,  but it can produce some gems, insight into your character or a snippet you can use in dialogue or even a new story idea.
You can always make use of your writing, but use it wisely. The point of the advice “just write, even if it’s bad” is to keep you writing all the time, and you absolutely should keep writing as often as you can. But slowing down and making sure it’s good, learning from when it’s not, is far more productive. And utilising free writing to generate creativity and support your writing is infinitely more useful than writing a few pages that you’ll be deleting tomorrow morning.

“Tell people you’re a writer.”

Now, I’ll temper this before I say it: it’s perfectly fine to call yourself a writer. However, you should be one first. Deciding to try to make a living as a writer doesn’t make you a writer, it makes you an aspiring writer. If you start calling yourself a writer straight away you’ll give yourself a sense of accomplishment for doing literally nothing towards making a living as a writer.
And that’s the point. If your goal is to “be a writer” then you’ve made a huge mistake already. Your goal is meaningless. Your goal should be an actual accomplishment, like writing a novel, or collection of short stories or poetry, or to make enough money as a writer to support yourself on writing alone. Because that’s what you mean, probably.
And none of those goals require you to call yourself a writer. Not a single one.
This advice probably comes from the idea that telling yourself and others that you are a writer will put you in that mindset. But it’s not necessary, and underneath what is quite an empty statement you’ll feel like a fraud for calling yourself something that you don’t believe, truly, you are.
So call yourself an aspiring writer, or say that you are trying to pursue a career as a writer. Then, one day, you’ll finally achieve your actual goal and realise you’re a writer.
Which is an excellent excuse to treat yourself to a self indulgent celebration.

“Get feedback on your work.”

Unless you have the ear of an accomplished writer or editor, feedback is not going to be useful. Again, I have to temper it, as having people read your finished work is a perfectly fine idea, but asking for feedback beyond “did you like it?” is not going to yield good results.
Here’s why: your friends, family and coworkers have absolutely no idea how to write a good novel. Just no idea. They know whether they like something, but they absolutely do not know why they like it. But they will try to give you advice, because you asked for it and presumably they like you and want to help.
It won’t.
Specific feedback from non-writers will only breed insecurity in you. If someone tells you “I think Hilda should die at the end” don’t take that advice. If everyone who reads it says they liked it but hated the ending, then maybe you should think about killing poor Hilda. But remember, you need to follow your gut, maybe Hilda just needs to lose a leg.
Having an honest first reader is great to get a guage on how others may react, but if you want specific feedback on craft you need writers on or above your level.
Feedback isn’t gospel, and most readers have no idea what they like.

Those were four of the most common writing tips that you should absolutely ignore. As with most bad advice, there is some truth to the original point but through repetition and bastardisation that truth has been lost, so the well meaning tip becomes less than helpful. Have you heard any other writing tips that are just plain awful? Leave a comment below.

As always, keep writing.

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Traditional Poetry Forms 101: The Sonnet

This post is part of a series on traditional poetry forms. This instalment focuses on one of the most famous forms of poetry, and a personal favourite, the sonnet.

The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th Century. Its invention is credited to Giacomo Da Lentini. Since its invention, the sonnet has been a staple of poetry across many cultures and has been utilised by a great number of the world’s most renowned poets. There are two main types of traditional sonnet in English: the Italian (or Petrarchian) and the English (also known as the Shakespearean, after its most famous practitioner).

The traditional sonnet consists of fourteen lines and follows a variable rhyming scheme. When written in English, the lines usually employ iambic pentameter, though not always. A main characteristic of the sonnet is that it deals with one thought or sentiment, ending with a “turn” or reflection with its closing lines.
This is the basic form of the traditional sonnet in its entirety, nothing else is prescribed. However, as mentioned earlier there are two main types of traditional sonnet, and they are described below.

Named after its most famous practioner, Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is the prototypical sonnet. It divides the fourteen lines into two stanzas, an octave with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA and a sestet most often following a rhyme scheme of either CDCCDC or CDECDE. Early Petrarchan sonnets employed a problem-solution idea, where a problem would be outlined in the octave and a solution would be proposed in the sestet. This is not a requirement however, but the turn on the ninth line typically is. The turn should indicate a change in the mood or stance of the poem.
A good example of a Petrarchan sonnet in English is “On His Blindness” by John Milton:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The English or Shakespearean sonnet was not invented by William Shakespeare, but introduced by Thomas Wyatt. It is known as the Shakespearean after its most famous practitioner. The Shakespearean is one stanza consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, typically in the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The third quatrain holds the turn and is called a volta, indicating a change in the poem in terms of theme or imagery, though Shakespeare himself preferred to do this in the couplet.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets is “Sonnet 116”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Note that the rhyme scheme doesn’t hold with modern pronunciation, but would have done in the pronunciation of the time.

And that, my friends, is the sonnet. Of course there are many variations and poetry, as a rule, has no rules, but these are the typical features of the traditional sonnet and they are a fun challenge to write. Perhaps you would like to have a go at writing one yourself? If you do, feel free to post it in the comments below. If this post has been helpful please share via social media and if you’d like to see more content like this please subscribe/follow and if you would like to get updates via our newsletter you can join our mailing list. Look out for the next instalment in this Traditional Poetry Forms series.

Keep writing, folks.