Using Dan Harmon’s Story Circle to Write Better Comics

Dan Harmon, the creative mind behind acclaimed TV shows like “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” has developed a powerful tool for crafting compelling stories: the Story Circle. Drawing from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and his concept of the Hero’s Journey, Harmon distilled the essence of storytelling into a simple, yet effective, eight-step process. In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into the Story Circle, exploring each step and how you can use this tool to enhance your own storytelling.

Step 1: You

The story begins with the protagonist, a character who is in a state of comfort or familiarity. This is the “You” of the story, the person the audience will identify with and follow throughout the narrative. It’s essential to establish the protagonist’s world, their desires, and their flaws, as these elements will drive the story forward.

Step 2: Need

The protagonist is presented with a problem or challenge that disrupts their status quo. This “Need” can be external, such as a threat to their way of life, or internal, like a personal struggle or desire for growth. The Need sets the story in motion and gives the protagonist a goal to strive for.

Step 3: Go

Driven by the Need, the protagonist must “Go” on a journey, whether physical or metaphorical. They leave their comfort zone and venture into the unknown, facing obstacles and challenges along the way. This step is about the protagonist actively pursuing their goal and learning valuable lessons in the process.

Step 4: Search

As the protagonist navigates the unfamiliar territory, they “Search” for a solution to their problem. This stage involves trials and tribulations, as the protagonist confronts their own limitations and the challenges presented by the story world. The Search is where the protagonist grows and evolves, gaining new insights and abilities.

Step 5: Find

The climax of the story occurs when the protagonist “Finds” what they’ve been searching for. This can be a literal object, a piece of knowledge, or a personal revelation. The Find represents a turning point in the story, where the protagonist’s efforts pay off, and they gain the tools or understanding needed to resolve their Need.

Step 6: Take

With their newfound knowledge or power, the protagonist must “Take” action to address their original problem. This step often involves a final confrontation or challenge, where the protagonist puts their growth and discoveries to the test. The Take is the moment of truth, where the protagonist proves they have what it takes to succeed.

Step 7: Return

Having overcome the challenges and achieved their goal, the protagonist “Returns” to their original world. However, they are not the same person they were when they left. The Return showcases the protagonist’s transformation and the impact of their journey on their life and the lives of others.

Step 8: Change

The story concludes with the protagonist experiencing a meaningful “Change” as a result of their journey. This change can be personal growth, a shift in perspective, or a tangible difference in their circumstances. The Change is the ultimate payoff of the story, demonstrating the significance of the protagonist’s experiences and the lessons they’ve learned.

Applying the Story Circle

Now that we’ve explored each step of the Story Circle, let’s look at how you can apply this tool to your own storytelling:

  1. Identify your protagonist and establish their world, desires, and flaws.
  2. Create a compelling Need that disrupts the protagonist’s status quo and sets the story in motion.
  3. Map out the protagonist’s journey, including the challenges they’ll face and the lessons they’ll learn.
  4. Determine the climax of the story, where the protagonist finds what they’ve been searching for.
  5. Show the protagonist taking action to resolve their Need and overcome the final challenge.
  6. Illustrate the protagonist’s return to their original world and the impact of their journey.
  7. Conclude the story with a meaningful change that demonstrates the significance of the protagonist’s experiences.

Examples in Popular Culture

The Story Circle can be found in numerous successful stories across various media. Here are a few examples:

  1. “The Wizard of Oz”: Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to Oz and back, learning the value of home and self-reliance.
  2. “Star Wars: A New Hope”: Luke Skywalker’s quest to become a Jedi and defeat the Galactic Empire, discovering his true identity and purpose.
  3. “The Lord of the Rings”: Frodo Baggins’ mission to destroy the One Ring and save Middle-earth, facing temptation and sacrifice along the way.

Example 1: “The Wizard of Oz”

  1. You: Dorothy, a young girl living on a farm in Kansas, dreams of a more exciting life.
  2. Need: A tornado transports Dorothy and her dog, Toto, to the magical land of Oz, where she must find a way home.
  3. Go: Dorothy embarks on a journey along the Yellow Brick Road to reach the Emerald City and seek help from the Wizard of Oz.
  4. Search: Along the way, Dorothy encounters challenges and makes new friends, including the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, each searching for something they lack.
  5. Find: Dorothy and her companions discover that the Wizard is not as powerful as they believed, but they each possess the qualities they sought within themselves.
  6. Take: Dorothy confronts the Wicked Witch of the West and ultimately defeats her, securing her passage home.
  7. Return: With the help of the Good Witch Glinda, Dorothy learns that she always had the power to return to Kansas by clicking her heels together.
  8. Change: Dorothy awakens back in Kansas, appreciating the love and comfort of her home and family, having learned valuable lessons about self-reliance and the importance of friendship.

Example 2: “Star Wars: A New Hope”

  1. You: Luke Skywalker, a young moisture farmer on Tatooine, yearns for adventure beyond his mundane life.
  2. Need: When Luke discovers a hidden message in the droid R2-D2, he is drawn into a galactic conflict and must deliver the plans to the Rebel Alliance.
  3. Go: Luke joins forces with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Princess Leia to rescue the princess and fight against the Galactic Empire.
  4. Search: The group faces numerous challenges, including escaping Tatooine, infiltrating the Death Star, and rescuing Princess Leia.
  5. Find: Luke discovers his connection to the Force and begins to understand his potential as a Jedi, guided by Obi-Wan’s teachings.
  6. Take: In a crucial moment, Luke trusts in the Force and successfully destroys the Death Star, striking a significant blow to the Empire.
  7. Return: Luke returns to the Rebel base, celebrated as a hero, having taken the first steps on his journey as a Jedi.
  8. Change: Luke’s experiences have transformed him from a naive farmboy to a hero, ready to embrace his destiny and continue the fight against the Empire.

Example 3: “The Lord of the Rings”

  1. You: Frodo Baggins, a hobbit in the Shire, inherits a powerful and dangerous ring from his uncle Bilbo.
  2. Need: When Frodo learns that the ring belongs to the dark lord Sauron, he must embark on a quest to destroy it and save Middle-earth.
  3. Go: Frodo leaves the Shire with a group of companions, including his loyal friend Sam, to journey to Mount Doom, the only place where the ring can be destroyed.
  4. Search: The fellowship faces numerous challenges, including Orcs, dark riders, and the temptation of the ring itself, testing their resolve and loyalty.
  5. Find: Frodo discovers the burden and responsibility of being the ring-bearer, learning to resist its corrupting influence and rely on the support of his friends.
  6. Take: In a final confrontation at Mount Doom, Frodo struggles with the temptation to keep the ring but ultimately chooses to destroy it, vanquishing Sauron and saving Middle-earth.
  7. Return: Frodo returns to the Shire, forever changed by his experiences, and prepares to leave Middle-earth with the elves.
  8. Change: Through his journey, Frodo has grown from a sheltered hobbit to a hero who has faced unimaginable challenges and made great sacrifices for the greater good.

In each of these examples, the protagonist undergoes a transformative journey that closely aligns with the eight steps of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. By understanding and applying this structure, writers can create compelling narratives that resonate with audiences and deliver satisfying character arcs.

How to Write Comics With The Story Circle

Harmon’s Story Circle can be effectively applied to writing comics, as the medium shares many storytelling principles with other narrative forms. Here’s how you can use the Story Circle to structure a comic book story:

  1. You: Introduce your protagonist and establish their world within the comic’s panels. Use visuals and dialogue to convey their personality, desires, and flaws.
  2. Need: Present a problem or challenge that disrupts the protagonist’s status quo. This can be demonstrated through a dramatic event or a conversation that sets the story in motion.
  3. Go: Show your protagonist actively pursuing their goal, leaving their comfort zone, and venturing into the unknown. Use panel transitions and visual cues to convey the journey and the passage of time.
  4. Search: Depict the protagonist’s trials and tribulations through a series of challenges and obstacles. Use the comic’s visuals to heighten the tension and illustrate the character’s growth and learning process.
  5. Find: Create a climactic moment where the protagonist discovers what they’ve been searching for. This revelation can be shown through a dramatic panel layout, a key piece of dialogue, or a symbolic visual.
  6. Take: Illustrate the protagonist taking action to resolve their problem, often in a final confrontation. Use dynamic panel compositions and intense visual storytelling to convey the significance of this moment.
  7. Return: Show the protagonist returning to their original world, but with a new perspective or understanding. Use visual callbacks or contrasts to demonstrate the change they’ve undergone.
  8. Change: Conclude the story by depicting the meaningful change the protagonist has experienced. This can be conveyed through a final panel or sequence that encapsulates the character’s growth and the impact of their journey.

5 Tips for Applying the Story Circle to Comics

  1. Use visual storytelling: Comics rely heavily on visuals to convey narrative, so use the artwork to reinforce the emotional beats and key moments of the Story Circle.
  2. Pace your story: Break down the Story Circle into smaller chunks that fit within the comic’s pages and issues. Each issue can focus on one or more steps of the circle, depending on the length of your story.
  3. Utilize panel composition: Use the arrangement and size of panels to emphasize the importance of certain moments or to create a sense of movement and progression through the Story Circle.
  4. Integrate dialogue and narration: While visuals are crucial, dialogue and narration can help convey the inner thoughts, motivations, and growth of your characters as they move through the Story Circle.
  5. Adapt as needed: The Story Circle is a flexible tool, so don’t be afraid to adjust it to suit your comic’s specific needs or genre. The key is to maintain the core emotional journey and character development.

By applying the Story Circle to your comic writing process, you can create engaging and emotionally resonant stories that keep readers invested in your characters and their journeys.

Final Thoughts

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a powerful tool for crafting compelling narratives that resonate with audiences. By understanding and applying the eight steps of the Story Circle, you can create stories that take your protagonist on a meaningful journey, filled with growth, challenges, and ultimate success. Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, or any other form of narrative, the Story Circle can help you structure your story in a way that engages and satisfies your audience. So, embrace the Story Circle, and unleash your storytelling potential!

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Frank Gogol is a San Francisco-based comic book writer. He is the writer of Dead End Kids (2019), GRIEF (2018), No Heroine (2020), Dead End Kids: The Suburban Job (2021), and Unborn (2021) as well as his work on the Power Rangers franchise.

Gogol’s first book, GRIEF, was nominated for the Ringo Award for Best Anthology in 2019. Gogol and his second book, Dead End Kids, were named Best Writer and Best New Series of 2019, respectively, by the Independent Creator Awards.