Understanding Story Structure
Big Cheese Books is developing content to help writers better understand story structure from varying perspectives (including Freytag’s Pyramid, Save the Cat, Dan Harmon’s story circle, and more). We’ll be providing breakdowns of the different structure templates and analyzing popular, traditionally published books and movies to show how their structure attracts readers, and how independent authors can go above and beyond to create high-quality books that change reader perceptions of self-published books.
In the meantime, we’ll start you with one of our favourite resources: Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. If you prefer to learn this template through video or want more detail than we provide here, we highly recommend checking out one of our favourite breakdowns provided by StudioBinder by clicking here.
This template reflects the elements we’re looking for on our contributor submission form. We recommend downloading a copy using the button provided below
and filling in the details for your book in the spaces provided while reviewing each section, then copying and pasting your answers into our online form when you’re ready to submit.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
YOU: Your story starts with your protagonist. Who are they? For the synopsis, our review team isn’t interested in superfluous details here like the colour of their hair or their body type, even if these elements are stylistically important to your book or provide a great metaphor; we just want to know the bare bones of your character and details that are highly relevant to your story (for example, if your story is a legal drama, you may want to mention that your main character is an associate lawyer).
NEED: In every good story, the main character needs something they don’t have at the beginning of the story. These needs create conflict and compel the character to act. Needs can exist on multiple levels: external, emotional, and philosophical. At Big Cheese Books, we believe the best stories combine all three types of need in ways that compliment and serve one another. For example, using the example listed above, your associate lawyer may need to prove her value at her firm (external) to ease her guilt over an error she made that wrongfully landed someone in prison (emotional) and prove that everyone deserves a second chance instead being robbed of success by one mistake (philosophical).
GO: You may also know this as the ‘inciting incident’ or ‘call to action’. This is a permanent change that happens to your character at the beginning of the story (often outside of their control) that sets the rest of their journey into action. For example, continuing with the example we’ve been using, an okay inciting incident might be that a client (similar to the one our associate lawyer wrongfully landed in jail) comes to the office looking for representation, giving our lawyer the chance to fix her past mistakes. A great inciting incident, however, is one the character cannot go back from; it moves their life from a place of familiarity and order to a place of chaos and uncertainty they spend the rest of the story recovering from. Using our paralegal example, a stronger inciting incident than the one listed above could be that the new client is the managing partners son and has a case that will be difficult to win, but the managing partner insists the associate lawyer finds a way to help him, revealing for the first time that she knows it was the lawyers fault their former client ended up in jail and threatening her job.
Do you see the difference?
SEARCH: Your search will take up most of your story. It involves any means your protagonist uses to resolve their need and recover from the inciting incident. This usually involves several efforts that get them closer to their goal that ultimately fail, triggering the next necessary action. For example, our associate lawyer might not think they can win the man’s case and tries to find someone at the firm who will write her a recommendation letter so she can change jobs before her boss fires her, only to find that the partners at the firm are loyal to the managing partner and report back to her boss, landing her in worse trouble. The associate lawyer might then go to her senior partner for help, only to learn that the senior partner is a shady lawyer who made many mistakes of his own through his career only to have them covered by the managing partner. The associate lawyer might then realize the whole firm is corrupt and gather evidence of it. Each element of your search should be linked together, one failed attempt leading to the next, and deepen the overall conflict in your character’s journey.
FIND: The protagonist resolves their needs, often in a way that isn’t what they expected. In our associate lawyer’s case, perhaps she realizes she cannot win the case for her managing partner’s son because he’s too corrupt and sees there’s no way to save her job (external); however, she realizes she doesn’t need to because she’s gathered enough evidence on her firm’s corrupt practices that she can get her past client’s jail time overturned and atone for her mistake by taking down her corrupt firm (emotional); in the process, she learns we should be held accountable for small mistakes or else they can get out of hand and lead to things like the corrupt environment of the firm (philosophical).
The find often corresponds with the climax and is most effective when it addresses all three layers of conflict (external, emotional, and philosophical) at the same time; when each level of conflict is resolved in a different scene/situation, it weakens your climax and slows down the narrative.
TAKE: The protagonist loses something during the resolution, sacrificing something to resolve the conflicts that made the story possible. For our associate lawyer, the take would be that they lose their job in the end despite the efforts they made not to; worse, perhaps our lawyer ends up in jail with her coworkers for not coming forward about her malpractice as soon as it happened.
RETURN: The protagonist re-enters the realm of order and develops a new normal. The conflict of the story is resolved and we see what the protagonist’s life looks like after the fact. For example, our narrative might jump forward several years and we see our associate lawyer, now disbarred and finished her sentence, getting a job offer to work with a charity organization that helps wrongfully convicted prisoners overturn their sentences.
CHANGE: And lastly, no story is complete without change. The character’s life needs to be irreversibly different because of the journey they’ve taken in your story. Again, the most effective changes occur on three levels (external, emotional, and philosophical). Our associate lawyer loses her job (external change) but no longer feels guilty about her past mistakes (emotional change) because she realizes that covering up her mistakes was the wrong choice and it’s better to pay the price for mistakes than put ourselves in a position to be corrupted by them (philosophical change).
Story circles can get complicated depending on the complexity of your story. In great stories, each scene often follows a modified story circle of its own because a good scene starts with a need, has conflict preventing the character from meeting that need, and resolves (often through the character developing a new related need or going back to the drawing board when their attempt to meet the need fails).
These individual story circles may also be lacking certain elements. For example, in an individual scene our associate lawyer (you) might approach a member of her firm for a recommendation letter (need) flirting with him to get his cooperation (search) only to find out he won’t give her the letter and call her out on the inappropriate way she tried to get it. In this scene, there’s no real find or return—she didn’t get the letter because if she did our story might conclude too easily, and the main conflicts of the story haven’t been resolved, so she can’t return to normal. However, there is still a take and a change even though we skipped a few steps: she loses a little of her dignity when she’s called out for the shady methods she uses in the scene to try to make her problem go away (take) and realizes she’ll have to change her methods and be more ‘by the book’ moving forward (change).
If your brain feels like it’s melting a little, don’t worry—no matter how many story circles might be present in your story, there should always be one, overarching story circle that encompasses the rest. For the purposes of your submission, that’s the one we want to see in your submission.
And that’s it! That’s Dan Harmon’s story circle. If you haven’t taken the time to do so, we highly recommend watching the breakdown provided by StudioBinder by clicking here. It goes into greater detail about Harmon’s story circle and is a wonderful resource to ensure you understand the elements of a good story circle before submitting. If you have any other questions before submitting, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Binder, S. (2018). Dan Harmon Story Circle: 8 Proven Steps to Better Stories. YouTube. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XGUVkOmPTA.