While there are a great number of elements that go into making a film, creating a story structure is undoubtedly the stepping stone. A good story that progresses in a convincing, logical manner is the fundamental requirement of any film. It sets the direction for character development and plot progression, and defines the film. Of course, most films and narratives follow archetypal structures that have repeated themselves in various forms since stories were invented. Joseph Campbell, an important figure in comparative mythology termed this the monomyth, and highlighted the presence of similar motivations in every kind of story. Dan Harmon’s Story Circle takes this deconstructionist approach forward. Let’s take a look at how we can break down narratives to their simplest forms through the Story Circle.
What is the Story Circle?
The Story Circle is a simple approach to narrative forms that looks at stories as a journey: the protagonist leaves a familiar setting to gain something, and then returns, having undergone a change. This is a simplification of The Hero’s Journey, formulated by Joseph Campbell. It emphasizes the cyclical nature of storytelling by using an archetypal structure found in stories across the world.
It is crucial to know how to break down the parts of a narrative using the Story Circle, as it grants screenwriters and filmmakers greater control over the progression of the plot. By adhering to a familiar structure, the story becomes relatable and timeless. The journey of the character encompasses the developments in the plot, and it helps artists tell a fully developed story.
Some of the most universal forms of stories – mythologies – are driven by the archetypes that the Story Circle presents. Desire, the journey for the object of desire, and inner change are all mainstays. This attests to the universal nature of the Story Circle, and the commonalities between different forms of storytelling that have influenced each other.
Who is Dan Harmon: Origin of the Story Circle
An American writer and producer, Dan Harmon has created and written for several productions like Community and Rick and Morty. The latter is particularly known for its rich and detailed plotlines that are resolved within the format of a 30-minute episode. Something of a wunderkind when it comes to screenplays and storytelling, Harmon began working on a method adapted from The Hero’s Journey in the ‘90s. He wanted to break a story into its most basic components, and then find similarities in these parts, across stories.
I wanted to find some symmetry to this.
In doing so, he was able to define an eight-step structure into which narratives of all kinds could successfully fit. Simply put, the Story Circle aims to introduce, develop and successfully resolve all kinds of plots in a series of familiar steps, instead of endlessly agonizing over plot details and progression. It treats the central character’s wants and desires as a driving force for a satisfying conclusion.
Before moving on to the eight steps of the Story Cycle, let’s take a look at The Hero’s Journey, and how it influenced Story Circle.
Note that the usage of the term “hero” is not according to the dichotomy of hero/villain. It refers to the central position of a character in their story, regardless of whether they are an antihero, antagonist, or a morally grey character.
The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is used in the field of comparative mythology to define a fundamental template for stories. It breaks down the finer details of narratives into common themes across stories. Thus, it becomes a way to study and define any story through the stages of the central character’s journey – the hero leaves a familiar situation to get something they want, obtains it at a price, and returns, having changed through the journey. Although, we must note that Campbell’s monomyth contained over 17 stages within the three prominent steps of Departure, Initiation, and Return.
Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative studies at Sarah Larence, popularized the concept in his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces (1949). While the concept was originally used to study and deconstruct myth and religion, it was popularized in Hollywood circles when George Lucas credited the Hero’s Journey with influencing the now-iconic Star Wars trilogy.
It must be noted that due to its origin, the Hero’s Journey served more as a thematic and spiritual guide for stories and folktales. Regardless, its influence over how we decipher art and narratives continues to be profound. Harmon’s Story Circle adapts and simplifies the Hero’s journey so that it is demystified: stories of all kinds can be decoded and structured accordingly.
8 Steps of The Story Circle
Desire is the driving factor behind the Story Circle. The central character is prompted into action due to wanting something. Harmon breaks down the cycle into eight simple stages. It can be approached as:
The first stage familiarizes the central character by establishing them in any given setting, or their comfort zone. It could be their family, job, anything at all. This is the first stage from which the action proceeds.
The second step identifies a desire in the character. They want something and their need to obtain it will drive the story forward.
To obtain what they want, the character enters an unfamiliar situation. This is crucial to building conflict and presenting the character with obstacles to overcome on their journey.
The search for the object of desire allows the character to adapt and improvise under unfamiliar conditions.
As the character finds what they were seeking, this stage highlights the self-knowledge that they have gained so far. It also resolves the desire that has driven the story so far.
This stage is full of urgency, as the character must obtain what they were after and fulfill their journey. There is usually a twist to this, as the object of desire is accompanied by a heavy price or loss that the character must incur.
The character now returns to where they started, having completed their journey.
The final stage is when the character is back to stage one, but they have undergone a change. The journey has affected them and the difference between who they were when they started and who they are now serves as the emotional climax of the narrative.
Now that we have a basic understanding of each stage of the Story Circle, let’s use an example to demonstrate how these fundamental stages can be fleshed out into a nuanced plot. For the purpose of discussing a narrative in detail, I shall use Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).
1. Taxi Driver begins by introducing us to the protagonist of the story, Travis Bickle. Travis is an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran who now works as a taxi driver. The story initially shows him going about his day in the rough, grim parts of New York, looking for customers. As he remarks on the harshness of life in the city, the viewer is able to place him in his milieu. Through his day-to-day interactions with his colleagues and his loneliness, we are told that he struggles with PTSD. His unsatisfying existence and lack of purpose sets him up to seek something out.
2. As Travis drives around the city, he repeatedly drives by a campaign office for presidential candidate Charles Palantine. This is where he sees a volunteer, Betsy. Fed up and lost in the gritty and dark parts of life in the city, Travis idolizes Betsy as a vision of purity. He places her on a pedestal as a paragon of virtue. Through his efforts to get to know her, Travis tries to find a purpose, and assimilate with society. It is made clear to the viewer that according to Travis, Betsy represents an object of desire through which he wishes to effect change in himself. Throughout his infatuation with her, we witness him writing empty self-help slogans in his notebook, so as to emphasize his desire to escape his loneliness.
3. As Travis ventures out of his familiar routine and approaches Betsy, the two get off to a rocky start. His awkwardness and lack of social skills reminds the audience of his discomfort in venturing into unfamiliar territory. He convinces Betsy to go on a date with him, and for a while, it seems as if he has found what he was seeking. Getting to know Betsy manages to temporarily halt his disillusionment with his life and society.
4. The stage of the search is marked by Travis attempting to get to know Betsy, and actively trying to avoid his existential crisis. Conflict is introduced when he takes her to see a pornographic film on their second date and Betsy leaves, disgusted. This rejection by Betsy exposes her in Travis’ mind as a false object of desire, or ideal. Hence, his search begins again when he encounters the child prostitute Iris on the roads of New York. As his disillusionment at the ugliness of life returns, he fantasizes about saving Iris. Throughout this, he witnesses senseless acts of violence like muggings, and his resentment solidifies in a manner that he fancies himself a vigilante.
5. Travis finds a purpose to life in actively stoking his resentment against society. He begins to train hard to improve his physical strength and acquires firearms. Travis sees himself as a man on a mission, planning to rid the city of its ugliness. He begins going to Palantine’s rallies and shaves his hair in a mohawk. His aim is to assassinate Palantine, as he views him as a symbol of what’s wrong in society. The film makes the viewer realize that Travis is really just looking for an outlet for his anger, loneliness and bitterness in life by these actions. Throughout these events, he also forms a tenuous bond with Iris and convinces himself that only he can save her from her life of sexual debasement.
6. When Travis fails at assassinating Palantine, it becomes clear to both him and the audience that the transference of his desires is now towards Iris, or saving her, particularly. As he heads towards her, he shoots her pimp, Sport, the bouncer at her building, and her customer so as to “free” her, In the skirmish, he is shot in the neck, and lies bleeding in her flat before he is taken away to the hospital. In saving Iris, he feels he has successfully taken what he sought, and is ready to die in peace. He attempts to shoot himself, but is out of bullets.
7. As Travis recovers, he receives letters from Iris’ parents who are thankful to him for bringing their daughter back to them, and the story reveals that he is proclaimed as a vigilante hero by the city. While he returns to his old job of driving cabs, he has been changed by his experience, and appears somewhat at peace.
8. The change in Travis is explored in the story through one last encounter with Betsy. While Betsy had previously been disgusted with him and rebuffed his advances, she now appears to admire him for his actions, and see him in a new light. As Travis drops her off and drives off, it is as if Betsy’s acceptance has signaled a change for him. He is, more or less, in the same circumstances where he started the story. But the journey has irrevocably changed him, for better or worse.
Does the Story Circle apply to all stories?
According to Harmon himself, the structure does apply to all kinds of stories. Let us try and see why. Due to the fundamental and cyclical nature of the narrative, it would be easy to decode stories in a way that fit into the eight stages as discussed above. However, the main reason it works is because it treats the desire of the characters as their primary motivation. Regardless of whether the central character is a hero, villain, agent of chaos or just an average Joe, everybody is driven by certain wants and needs, in fiction and in real life. It is only logical that longing lies at the heart of every story.
This is where I return to Scorsese’s film; to demonstrate how the structure lends itself to all kinds of stories, no matter how unconventional it may be. The film’s ending is subject to some debate, with many viewing it as Travis’ wish fulfillment. However, it does not really matter if it’s reality or fiction. His desire to find a purpose to life has finally been answered, albeit in a destructive way. Even if it’s his own projection of a conclusion, what matters is that the change in him is affected through his journey and search. Moralistic issues of whether he is a hero or villain cease to matter, because Travis is the central character. His central subjectivity in the narrative drives the plot, whether or not he’s a traditional hero figure. For better or worse, his desire drives his personal narrative, as it does for all others.