How to Shape a Story, According to Famous Writers
The three structural guides that follow aren't the only templates for good
Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Years before Community and Rick & Morty made him one of TV's most famous showrunners, Dan Harmon made a web series called Laser Fart. It was the story of a superhero who could fart lasers. And it had surprising resonance, thanks to its strong structure.
In a series of essays on a wiki for web series creators , Harmon spelled out this structure, calling it the "story circle." Read Harmon's original essays on the Channel 101 Wiki , and see more discussion compiled here .
Harmon identifies eight stages to a story:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
Writer Alex Crumb maps out the circle :
In general, use this guide to make sure your story is driven by your character's actions. Note how this structure fuses a story's obstacles to the protagonist's goals. The character does something, so the world does something back, so the character does something back, and so on, like a game of tennis. Think of every Shakespeare play, and how all the obstacles come out of the hero's and villain's actions, and affect their next actions.
Or think of a typical sitcom episode, which starts with an obstacle disrupting the character's comfort zone, and follows the character returning things to normal. (One of Harmon's essays deals with adapting the story circle for TV .)
Your story doesn't need to include all eight stages on the page, but remember that the readers will imagine the missing steps in their head. Hemingway's micro-story starts at stage 8, as the would-be parent deals with the fallout of their tragedy. The famous short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" ends on a cliffhanger. Both stories engage the reader by asking them to fill in the missing stages.
In many stories, each main character has their own story circle. On Community , Harmon and his staff would map out circles for each character, and often map whole circles for specific scenes.
In some stories, different character circles play out in different orders. In a mystery, the detective-protagonist usually follows a normal circle, while uncovering a second circle: the perpetrator's. This second circle usually starts at the ending before working its way backward, as the detective figures out the methods and motives of the perp.
Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey
Harmon's story circle is inspired by Joseph Campbell's more complicated structure, the Hero's Journey , as laid out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Campbell was primarily an academic, not a fiction writer, and his structure is more descriptive. It also includes more "optional" story elements.
As an academic classification of all
But with any kind of story, no matter how post-modern or mundane, you can add some heft and adventure by incorporating stages like the "refusal of the call" or "last-minute danger." If you're working on a comedy, you can ironically insert one of these stages, parodying our human need to package everything into predictable narratives.
Kurt Vonnegut's Story Shapes
This isn't physics, and there's more than one way to think of your story structure. In his rejected master's thesis in anthropology, Kurt Vonnegut charted out the structures of stories based on the characters' good or bad fortunes:
This is a fascinating way to define genre, by emotional journey rather than by the trappings of setting. Vonnegut explains the chart above in an engaging five-minute talk:
Designer Maya Eilam graphs out more of Vonnegut's story shapes , adding classic and modern examples. Note that Vonnegut's shapes also apply to ancient myths. Their flexibility might offer you more insight than Campbell's monomyth. If you're struggling to fit your beats into a story circle, and you're pretty sure the problem isn't the beats, instead think about the story's Vonnegut shape. Are you beating up your characters enough? Are you giving them enough of a resolution? If your graph goes flat or ends in the middle of the scale, is there a good reason?
Don't let any of these shape guides pull your story in a way you don't actually want it to go. If something is strongly pulling you in the "wrong" direction, then that's just the right direction in disguise. Again, comedies often violate the norms of structure for a good reason, as do post-modern stories that challenge our typical narratives. But the best way to challenge a narrative is to understand it.