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Dan Harmon’s ‘Circle Structure’

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Dan Harmon, for those who do not know, is the creator and head writer for the great television show Community. Each week he and his writers produce some of the wittiest and engaging stories you can see. What really sets his show a part is how strong each story is. Well it has come to my attention that Dan has gone over his methodology in great detail. He is essentially using the “Hero’s Journey” but breaks it down and uses modern examples that we all can identify with.

It is an awesome read if you have the time and has helped me re-evaluate my own work to see if I have these essential elements. But in case you just want a quick run down, here is how the cycle is broken down.

1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2. Need (but they want something)
3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4. Search (adapt to it)
5. Find (find what they wanted)
6. Take (pay its price)
7. Return (and go back to where they started)
8. Change (now capable of change)

He also offered this small drawing that I took the liberty of remaking for myself–as I couldn’t find a larger copy. It gives you a visual representation of the 8 parts.

Dan Harmon's Circle Structrue


The power of this visualization is that, as Harmon points out, each point is a direct counterbalance to its opposite. Each section will inform and bolster its counterpoint. This is a very powerful thing to keep in mind as it should help you muddle through those moments of, “what do I do next?”. For instance, Step 4 “Search” is the point in the story where character is gaining the skills and knowledge needed for Step 8 “Change”.

One of the best instances of this that I can think of is from Kill Bill Vol. 2. The Bride is under the strict tutelage of Pai Mei who is teaching her the necessary skills of an assassin–step 4, “Road of Trials”. By the climax of the film she is a master of both worlds, able to exact change upon the world that Bill once was in charge of–step 8. She performs the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” taught to her by Pai Mei in step 4. See how these things play off each other?

Now in this instance Quentin plays a bit with this structure to be sure, as we’re only told about the crucial technique but never see Mei actually instruct our hero. But in context of the film, I think it serves as a powerful statement between the two characters. It also goes to prove how powerful the cycle can be.

Thanks Dan for your great insight and helping some of us understand the “Heroes Journey” just a bit better.


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