Dan Harmon’s Circular Structure, Part One

Written by Ryan R. Campbell

Ryan R. Campbell is an International Book Awards finalist, the founder of the Writescast Network, and the co-founder of Kill Your Darlings Candle Company.

Posted on June 23, 2017

Filed under Uncategorized

This post is part of the Outline With Me series. For more like this, check out the outlining your novel page.

So you’ve taken a look at the seven-point and Hero’s journey structures, and neither quite jibes with your vision for your plot. Or perhaps you’re starting with this post because you recognize the name Dan Harmon (CommunityRick and Morty, etc.) and also really like circles. No matter what led you here, the important thing is that the circular structure I’m about to describe forms the backbone of almost any plot on both the macro- and micro-level.

That is to say that whether you go with a seven-point structure, Hero’s journey model, or something else entirely, this circular structure is present in any of them. If those models are the puppets, circular structure is the puppeteer… or something.

On some level, essentially, circular structure is the most stripped down way I’ve seen employed to examine plot in general.

If circular structure is the most stripped down way to examine plot in general, you might say, then why doesn’t everybody use it? Why isn’t it just “the one?”

Not everyone thinks about, visualizes, or approaches a story in the same way. Think of each plot-structure model as using Google Maps, Apple Maps, or the Waze app. Each one leads to the same destinations, but the interfaces are unique, and there may be a few unique turns along the way that vary from the route provided by the other apps. In the end, you’ll still (arguably?) get where you need to go, but it’s all in how you put the apps to work for you and which interface you prefer. Mostly.

At any rate—what’s this circular structure all about then? Let’s start with, well, a circle.

circular structure

It’s so… beautiful circular.

You’ll notice that two lines run through the circle, slicing it into quarters (the slicing of the circle won’t come into play explicitly in this post, but we’ll explore it more in part two). I’ve also numbered the edges and midpoint on the arc of each slice in a clockwise manner, starting with 1 at the 12 o’clock position.


Here’s why. Every story, including our plots, can follow this pattern to get where it needs to go.

  1. Our main character is in her comfort zone,
  2. but there’s something she wants.
  3. She enters an unfamiliar world or situation,
  4. adapts to it,
  5. and gets what she wanted.
  6. But! She pays heavily for achieving this
  7. before returning to a familiar world or situation
  8. as a changed person.

That’s it. That’s literally it. Around and around our characters go, be it over the course of our entire manuscript or a single paragraph.

Don’t believe that all eight steps can be achieved over the course of a single paragraph?

Think of a scenario in which a character’s belief or opinion is challenged. That challenge-moment is step three already, with the scene’s status quo and this character’s scene-length objective already covering steps one and two. In our example, the character mulls over this new perspective and accepts it (step four), which—perhaps in an ironic twist—actually helps her get the thing she wanted (step five).

She then realizes, however, that this new perspective may be something that leaves her estranged from her family were they to ever find out (step six), but she knows she must go home anyhow (step seven), and she can’t unsee the world from this new perspective (step eight).

Bam. All of the above could be written occur within a character’s head over the course of a four-sentence paragraph, even. Realistically though, as writers we should avoid having too many long-running inner monologues, and the best execution of the scenario described above would happen in a combination of exposition dialogue—in my opinion at least.

So yeah… maybe running through all eight steps in a single paragraph is a bit heavy-handed, but the above is an example of the power this circular-structure analysis can have.

Still struggling to see the utility of this? Perhaps the below suggestions have you thinking of this from a different angle.

Struggling to write a synopsis? Try picking out these eight moments from your plot and use them as a guide. Trying to figure out what’s missing from one of your subplots, single scene, or a three-chapter arc? Check to see if all eight of these steps are put to use.

As if that wasn’t enough to tide us over, there are actually even more layers to this circular-structure business that we’ll cover in future posts. For now, though, try to map how this structure may have been incorporated in your favorite book or movie. If you’re looking for an even greater challenge, see how many scenes from either also make use of these mechanics.

Until next time, circle hunters, write on and write well.

Like what you’ve read here? Have thoughts on circular structure or writing in general? Feel free to reach out to me through the contact page or by finding me here on Twitter.


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