During my university studies (which is a BA in film) we were only thaught The Three Act Structure and The Hero’s Journey. For a long time, that is all I thought existed. It was a bit of a revelation when I started stumbling upon other structures during my recent studies; well, it is not as if these structures had been created recently, it is just that previously to deciding to become a fiction writer, I had no need to learn them (I’ve been working with software development for the past 17 years).
The Story Circle was the first new plot structure I learned. It is so much easier to use than the Hero’s Journey, while providing similar beats, that I can definitely see how it became so popular. If all you know is the three act structure, I urge you to give the Story Circle a try, I think it will make your stories better. If you don’t know any structure at all, I still think you can’t go wrong with this one. The Story Circle is a powerhouse that provides a very solid framework for telling stories, and it is immediately recognizable.
The Dan Harmon Story Circle, or Plot Embryo, created by Dan Harmon, has quickly risen the plot structure ranks to become one of the most popular plotting methods out there, rivalling similar structures like the hero’s journey. Dan Harmon’s theory behind this plot structure is that it’s based on our innate understanding of story, and whether or not that’s true, it’s a plot structure that many writers find intuitive and easy to use because of its focus on character motivation and goal!
How it works
Similarly to the Hero’s Journey, the gist of this story structure is that the main characters will go on a quest to solve their problems and will eventually return having being changed by the experience. The story moves clockwise from quadrant to quadrant in the story circle.
1 - A character is in a zone of comfort
2 - But they want something
3 - They enter an unfamiliar situation
4 - Adapt to it
5 - Get what they wanted
6 - Pay a heavy price for it
7 - Then return to their familiar situation
8 - Having changed
The story circle can be divided into two hemispheres. The top one is the world known to the main character. It is where they start and to where they’ll eventually return changed. The bottom hemisphere can be understood as then underworld — to use the Hero’s Journey jargon — and is unknown to the protagonist. It is through this underworld that the protagonist will go through and be changed by the experience.
From passive to active
If we divide the story circle vertically into two halves, we can say that the left half of the circle represents the protagonist in their active phase. The right half represents your protagonist in their passive or reactive phase.
As the story moves clockwise through the circle, the protagonist evolves from a passive character reacting to what is happening around them to an actual protagonist with agency and an active mindset towards their goals.
Be aware that passive and active in this sense is about agency, not about how succesful they are with their actions. A character finally getting the courage and skills to act can still get into a ton of trouble and be in a worse spot than when they were passivelly reacting to the world around them.
I think that the Dan Harmon’s Story Circle — also known as the plot embryo — favours stories that are character driven instead of plot driven. From my own experience, I’ve noticed that character driven stories are more popular these days than they used to be when I was a teenager and most books were plot heavy with bidimensional charaters. Readers have expectations regarding character growth and change, failing to fulfill these expectations is a source of bad reviews and confused readers.
The story circle picks the ubiquous hero’s journey framework from a character evolution lens. It reframes the journey as serving the character growth and instead of prioritizing the journey and having the character evolution as a side-effect of pursuing the quest. I tend to think of the story circle as the hero’s journey for the 21st Century reader.
Even when you decide to structure your story using some different plot structure, you can still leverage the story circle as a tool to help you understand and reason about your characters. One could create a story circle for each protagonist and antagonist in a novel thus making sure their own individual motivation, journey, and destiny is mapped out.
For a long time, I had a somewhat incomplete understanding of the story circle that caused me a lot of trouble during my outlining phases. I could not to use it for a series in which the protagonist doesn’t go through a lot of changes, such as a cozy mystery or recurring character in a thriller. I thought that the story circle demanded that the character went through large changes in their journey. My mental model was Luke Skywalker going from bored farmer to kickass religious fanatic wizard pilot. I could not see how a protagonist like Sherlock Holmes or Poirrot could be mapped using it.
It was Chris Fox in his Plot Gardening book who finally showed me how it could work. The story circle demands changes, but they can be small. You can have a protagonist who is changing very little from book to book and yet growing when observed from a far away point-of-view. This is how Dan Harmon used the story circle to plot out the growth of Jeff Winger, one of his protagonists in the Community series. Jeff changes very little between episodes, but when you look at the character across multiple seasons, he had massive changes.
With that mindset, and author can plan a series of books in which the protagonist changes in just one small but important way in each book. Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher feels like a character that doesn’t change much between books, and yet the Dresden in Storm Front (the first book in that series) is definitely not the same Dresden who we see in Battle Ground (book seventeen in that series).
In summary, I don’t think you can go wrong with the story circle. If your characters will change a lot during the story, the plot embryo will help you plan those changes. In cases where you want the characters to evolve in a slower pace, you can still use it as your main plot structure just making sure the character has a small but significant growth by the end of it. The story circle is also a good tool to be paired with other plot structures to help you understand your characters better.