I don’t know about you but when I visit a place I’m comfortably but not entirely familiar with, I hardly ever use a map to explore it. I often opt for serendipitous discoveries, taking random routes to see what happens. Even if I pick a preferred destination, I don’t mind ending up elsewhere as long as wandering is fun. But that is only the case when I feel relatively safe and at home.

When I am a total stranger or when I feel alien, caution wins over and I always end up with a map. I need its graphic overview to make sense of the space around me.

Same with stories. When the narrative happens to flow naturally, you need no story templates to guide you in weaving the story. But as soon as you get stuck, you naturally crave for a story map you could follow to structure the narrative. You want to see the universal shape of a story structure so you can proceed along a well-designed route.


And what shape is a story structure? For Dan Harmon, an American sitcom creator, it is circular and follows a pattern of descent (a deep dive into the unknown) and return (getting back to square one after a transformation or with a new capacity for transformation). Submerge and emerge, plummet and soar – in a circular cycle.


Harmon called his story map a story embryo, but I prefer to refer to it – less anatomically – as a story circle.

Imagine a circle divided into 8 quadrants, each numbered chronologically from 1 to 8. It resembles a mini bull’s eye and the rationale behind it is crystal clear: get the story structure right by mapping it out.


Each number/quadrant refers to a different part of the story circle.

All the quadrants combined guarantee a satisfying story.


1. A character is in a zone of comfort [YOU]
2. but they want something.[NEED]
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation, [GO]
4. adapt to it, [SEARCH]
5. get what they wanted, [FIND]
6. pay a heavy price for it.[TAKE]
7. They then return to their familiar situation, [RETURN]
8. having changed or capable of change. [CHANGE]

Dan Harmon created his first story circle in the 1990s – as “an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps” – when he got stuck writing a screenplay. He was desperate to work out the structure behind each and every story. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this. Some simplicity.”


To this day, Harmon jots down ideas for each of his stories on a different story circle, squeezing his notes into relevant quadrants. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the circle is invalid, and he starts from scratch.

And to this day, he likes to demystify all the stories around him – those encountered in films, books, and songs – to check if he can see his story map underneath every single narrative. This confirms his theory as airtight. “I can’t not see that circle. It’s tattooed on my brain.”

Click here to see how the plot of “Breaking Bad” translates into Dan Harmon’s story circle.


Click here to read a complete interview with Dan Harmon for Wired.


Photos: Won Young Park via unsplash.com and Wikimedia Commons.

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