Using the Story Circle to Turn Your Ideas into Screenplays
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a simple-but-effective way to take an idea for a script and work it into a fully functional story.
When Joseph Campbell introduced the world to the Hero’s Journey, he unified the global experience of mythology, religion, and simple storytelling. His work detailing this monomyth highlighted salient points in any narrative structure and revealed how people everywhere tell their stories essentially the same way — even across languages and cultural divides.
Storytelling is, arguably, among our oldest social tools. It created ways for us to map experiences, record them for posterity, and navigate new challenges. They provide cultural identity, from which we draw elements of our individual identities. We are, essentially, made of stories — the ones we live, and the ones we get secondhand.
Campbell’s work was groundbreaking, but structuring effective stories doesn’t end here. We can thank Dan Harmon (yes, that Dan Harmon — Community, Rick and Morty), for breaking this universal human experience down into an even simpler model — a model you can use to take a kernel of an idea and work it into a functioning script.
Let’s take a look at how the Story Circle works with a case study of The Matrix.
The Story Circle
Here’s the circle in action with the man himself.
Watching Harmon, we get a sense of how we take the kernel of an idea and ask ourselves a series of questions about the story we want to tell. Each answer leads to a new question until we’ve worked our way through the entire circle and end up with a changed world at the end of our narrative experience.
Boom. Have story, will travel.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the eight elements of the circle.
One good reason to think of this model as a circle is that the first element (you) is also the final element (changed). This portion of your story should establish your protagonist, which might be a single character, a group of characters, or even something as large as an army or organization. We need to see what firmly identifies the protagonist and why we relate to them because, by the time we have moved through the entire circle, our experience with the story should close the loop with a new, changed you — based on the events that play out.
Here’s where we detail what makes our protagonist unique and what it is about them that we’ll hold onto throughout the story. What’s the condition of the environment around the protagonist, and what other important elements of their lived experience do we need in order to understand the world you’re trying to build (and change)?
Let’s take our first look at The Matrix. When we meet Neo, he’s still just Thomas Anderson — an office worker with a punctuality problem and a jerk of a boss, like most of us. Taken like this, he isn’t a very compelling character. There’s a sense of drudgery to his life. He’s stuck in a role he finds unfulfilling, without any control over his destiny. Any of us could be him, and that’s the point. This character is relatable because, like most of us, he isn’t on an adventure — he isn’t making his way around the Story Circle. Yet.
But, as we’re getting to know Thomas Anderson, we see that he’s searching for something, and we learn that he’s a hacker. Is The Man actually after him? He isn’t a hero, so he doesn’t have the bravery or skills to extricate himself from any out-of-the-ordinary situations. It’s intriguing. We want to know what he’s looking for.
The need is the primary motivation to move the protagonist out of his/her normal world and into the experience of the story. In this post, we detailed the simple formula you can use to develop a logline for your project (essentially, your elevator pitch). Working through the Story Circle means you probably don’t know enough about your story yet to create a logline, but the simple formula behind a logline shows you how the elements of the circle come together to make a short, effective summary of your entire script.
In the logline formula, an “inciting incident” prompts the “protagonist” to take an “action.” This is where we’re at the need stage of the Story Circle. Somebody or something has done something that has altered the protagonist’s world, and now they have to do something about it — like avert a catastrophe, recover an artifact, or win the big game.
What is the Matrix? The famous tagline for the film comes directly from its most ominous line in the script, and it represents Neo’s need. This is what he’s been looking for — why he stays up nights, and runs computer searches, and researches the history of the world’s most famous (and dangerous) hackers. This search is consuming him, and we can see that he believes it’ll change his life. He’s not sure what he’s looking for, but he knows it’s an escape from his repetitive, pointless world as an office worker.
There’s more to Thomas Anderson, who is also Neo, and this alter-ego is drawing him into a new world.
This stage marks the protagonist’s first engagement with the central premise of your script. However you defined your need, the protagonist must leave their established, stable world behind and begin the process of resolving the need — whatever that might mean. If the Story Circle were a hike, this would be the moment when your protagonist leaves the trailhead behind and starts climbing.
The best stories detail the protagonist engaging the need in compelling ways. As we’ll see, it’s never a direct path from point A to point B. There’s an opportunity for you (at this stage of the circle) to sew the seeds of the challenges that will beset your protagonist later on.
When Morpheus’s intrepid crew brings Neo face-to-face with The Man himself (in a now-iconic scene), Neo faces a choice, and he chooses the path to his answers — he chooses to go. This simple, seemingly innocuous decision immediately erupts into the surreal death-and-rebirth sequence that shows us Thomas Anderson is fully dead, and Neo has taken his place.
Now that your protagonist is on the path, it’s going to be a struggle to figure out what they need to do to fully answer the need, and these answers shouldn’t come easy. For better or worse, your protagonist’s life has changed irrevocably — there’s no going back. Usually, the process of figuring out how to fulfill the need is going to extract some payment from your protagonist (there’s no such thing as a free lunch).
You can think of the search stage as sort of a narrative gatekeeper. There’s a wild world out there, and it has the answer to the need the protagonist is seeking, but they’ve got to get past the gatekeeper first.
In order to get at the real truth of the Matrix, and what it means for him, Neo must find the skills and resources he will need to safely navigate the Matrix, now that he’s aware of its true nature. This means he’ll need to learn how to fight and how to use his new superpowers in order to stay a step ahead of the agents who will pursue him.
However, the transition isn’t easy. Neo is still letting go of his identity as Thomas Anderson. And, even though the crew can download skills directly into Neo’s consciousness, his mind must still accept their presence. If he fails at this, the artificial world of the Matrix can still kill him.
At this point, the protagonist has been doing everything they can to answer the need. This usually means surmounting challenges, solving mysteries, and surviving fights. The protagonist has become, in essence, simply the drive to answer the need.
However, when the protagonist makes the find, there’s a problem. It turns out, what they thought was the need wasn’t the need after all. Or, they need something else. Or a new problem has arisen. At this point, the protagonist (who’s been mostly a driving force trying to reach the find) must reevaluate themselves and reorient as a more complex character in relation to the shifting stakes of the story.
When Neo meets with the Oracle in the heart of the Matrix, he thinks he’s found the truth he’s been seeking. Yes, the Matrix is real. No, he’s not The One. This resounding truth recasts what he learned about himself during the search. And, this information doesn’t come without a price. A moment will come when Neo must decide to save himself or Morpheus. Since, according to the Oracle, Neo isn’t The One, the resistance would be lost without Morpheus.
It’s on the way back from this realization that Cypher’s betrayal ends in the apprehension of Morpheus. Neo now realizes what the Oracle was saying. He can save himself or Morpheus, but not both. Neo makes the obvious decision to convince the others that he isn’t The One and that they must save Morpheus for all their sakes.
While the find isn’t quite what the protagonist was searching for, they still need to (literally) take it — even in its strange, new form. This might mean grabbing the goods and running. Or, it might mean applying some new scientific truth to an environmental crisis. Or, it might mean using a long sought-after new skill. The find may not have solved all the problems that the protagonist thought it would, but it’s still part of a developing story, and will help define how you resolve the story overall.
It won’t be easy getting out with the take — in fact, it should be difficult — but in the end, overcoming the odds will help redefine your character and map the change that we’ll see at the end of the circle.
Neo and Trinity storm the office tower to reclaim Morpheus because Neo realized during the find that only he could save Morpheus, and since he believes he isn’t The One, losing Morpheus would be a huge blow. Armed to the teeth, they shoot their way to a daring rescue and recover Morpheus with a bit of beautiful aerial gymnastics, hundreds of feet in the air.
However, after they’ve delivered Morpheus safely back to the crew, and Trinity has made her exit, Neo finds himself cut off from his comrades, and he must face an agent. A suicide mission. Neo ultimately loses his foot race with the agents, and they seemingly shoot him to death.
However, he has always been The One — the Oracle merely needed him to realize it for himself. As Neo seemingly rises from the dead, he now knows what he’s capable of, and when the agents open fire on him again, he halts all of their bullets in midair. He has fully taken control of that which he sought all along — what the Matrix means for him. And, this is how he’s finally able to defeat the agents.
The return is just what it sounds like. The protagonist has successfully gotten through the challenges of the take, and now they’re returning to their world with the find. The world they return to may look the same as it was before, but there’s something subtly off — something difficult to put into words. The price of successfully returning and answering the need is that nothing will ever be the same.
This is what we’ve been looking for throughout the whole story. Early on, we empathized with the protagonist, and we watched the challenges and developments slowly chip away innocence, peace, or stability. Having seen the protagonist go through this cycle, our payoff is the new normal.
After Neo defeats the agents, we get to see the hard code that powers the Matrix still running. The world, as we encountered in the beginning, still exists for the majority of people. For them, it’s all still office towers and jerk bosses. Life goes on, even if they don’t recognize an altered presence in their midst. Neo has returned to the world of Thomas Anderson, but he sees through it now — he knows it isn’t real. The definition of reality at the beginning of his story and its definition at the end are wildly divergent.
What is the Matrix? The stakes behind the ultimate need couldn’t be higher. It’s reality itself, and Neo now knows its secrets.
Sometimes, the world the protagonist returns to doesn’t change. Rather, that thing we couldn’t put our finger on is the protagonist themselves. Simply by being back in the old world, they’re disrupting how things used to work. Belief systems may not work properly now, political situations that once seemed fair are corrupt, things that seemed beautiful no longer are.
The world itself may not always change, but the protagonist always does, and the thrill of detailing your script at this stage of the cycle is deciding what will happen to your protagonist if he/she stays, now that they’ve changed. Perhaps they’ve grown emotionally. Perhaps they have a new skill set that will benefit all those around them. Perhaps they simply fell in love, and life will never be the same. However you decide to change your protagonist, make it worth your audience’s while. After all, they stuck with you all the way to this point.
In the end, after we see that the Matrix is still alive and running, Neo begins talking to us. He shares what he has found and brought back to the world in his return. And, he’s going to use his new powers to awaken us all. He’s a changed man — a prophet, a hero. Things will never be the same . . .
Now, we can see how the beginning (you) is also the end (change) of the Story Circle. We tell stories like this in cycles, and the next one we listen to or watch will have to fit into every other story we’ve experienced before — this is why audiences can react poorly if you violate what they think they’re getting out of your movie.
When you’re working your way through the story cycle, interview yourself. Ask yourself questions, like: Who are you? And when you answer it, ask another, like: What do you need? Keep going until you’ve made it all the way around the circle, and then start again. Do a few laps. Refine your ideas. The circle will draw the story out of your idea, and then . . . sit down and write it.
Looking for more on developing your story and writing your script? Check out these articles.
- Understanding and Implementing Plot Structure for Films and Screenplays
- The Rhetorical Triangle — Using Pathos, Logos, and Ethos in your Projects
- A Study of Unreliable Narrators Throughout Film History
- The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Tagline for Your Film or Video Project
- The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Logline for Your Film or Video Project
Cover image via Warner Bros.