For the past three weeks, we’ve been exploring Dan Harmon’s story circle, the Community and Rick & Morty creator’s much-applauded story structuring device. To jog your memory, it’s a basic outline that can be applied to any story (given more or less emphasis in different places), and looks like this:
Storytelling is an intimidating process for many of us, but it really shouldn’t be. After all, we tell stories to children all the time. We make up reasons why the AC rumbles (monsters) or why they should go to bed (monsters) or what or who Santa Claus is (the biggest, jolliest monster of them all). And, believe it or not, those simple stories share a lot of similarities, structurally, with some of the biggest, most influential stories of all time.
A Quick Recap
Last week, we covered “Need”, the part of every story where our protagonist becomes dissatisfied with their normal life. They’d don’t know it yet, but these seeds are about to sprout into an adventure that takes them far away from the normal life they know (at least for now).
Before that, we talked about “You”, and how important it is to put the reader inside the mind of a character. This is their avatar and the person whose feelings they will share for the next few hundred pages. You’ve got to pick someone, and “You” outlines more on why.
And that brings us neatly to today’s topic: section three, “Go”. We’ll explore what it is that sets characters out on their quests and why this is one of the pivots on which a good story turns. So, without any further lip-flapping, let’s get right down to it.
Go: Time To Get Moving
Alright, remember that story you were going to write before you got stuck in all that boring world building we’ve been doing for two chapters now? The one where a guy fights a space rhino or six intrepid kids run away from a sewer crocodile or two boring people fall in love? Whatever that story is is going to come out here.
And this is where a lot of people trip up. Because knowing exactly what your story’s about is difficult, especially if you haven’t started writing it yet. My best advice is to force yourself to do the lame thing and have a conversation with yourself before writing any further. Ask yourself a few questions. Nothing too deep, like “Why didn’t I get a job in retail?” or “Mom and dad would be so disappointed in me right now.
Keep It Simple
No, I mean simpler questions. Questions like: “If they made a movie trailer for this book, what would be the coolest parts?” Or, “What would my character want to do the least right now?” With that information in hand, you’ll be more than ready to start writing with some real goals in mind.
If your story (like mine) is about a love story between a man and a girl on the run from the forces of hell, she won’t have met the forces of hell yet. But she’s about to. And the results could be either amazing or so bad you may never want to show your face to your friends and family again. But this is where you make a stand for your book and commit to some good old fashioned stuff happening. Maybe it’s stuff you set up in the first two parts of this guide and left to find later, or maybe you’re hitting them with something altogether new. Whatever the case, this is where we find the killer’s first body, the ugly guy’s first kiss, the husband in bed with someone else or the wife skipping the country with $2 million in cash.
The Movie Poster
Dan Harmon uses the “movie poster” as a good tool to get this part of the story circle right. What would go on the poster for this story at a theater on a Friday Night? Werewolves in janitor outfits, saving Manhattan? A tough-as-nails ballet teacher in an impoverished neighborhood, flanked by kids whose lives she’s going to transform, forever? Whatever the case, this is where that thing happens, and it’s easily one of the most important parts of the entire story, so you’re going to want to pay it some mind.
In Bay City Monsters, this is where Paul rescues a girl he barely knows from a giant walking corpse in a park. It’s what’s also known as an “inciting incident” or, more colloquially, where the rubber meets the road.
Starting Our Descent
Remember, your story circle is divided into an upper and a lower hemisphere. Everything in the upper half is the normal, predictable world your character starts in. Belle lives in a provincial town. The Cat in a Hat kids are at home on a perfectly normal, boring, rainy day.
Everything South of that line, however, is special. It’s where your character grows and encounters hardships and goes through something unexpected. It’s where they start giving us all of that movie poster goodness, getting out on the open road, kissing the girl, banging that apple pie someone left out in the kitchen.
So, To Recap….
- You’re a lowly janitor at a Chinese restaurant
- Someone comments that you look exactly like the president’s wife
- The CIA is whisking you away to become a presidential decoy.
In our last lesson, we learned that stories are really just journeys into the unconscious where the protagonist (and hopefully the reader) can work some things out. This is the tipping point for your story. Frodo thought he was safe in The Shire, but Gandalf returns in the night with spooky news and now they have to flee. The Cat in the Hat shows up at those kid’s house and proceeds to be just the absolute worst person ever.
Whatever your story is, you can play this transition up or down to help guide the audience from the waking world into the contrasting chaotic. This is your hero’s first step out their front door and onto the path of their journey.
Story Circle! Our Story Has Begun!
From here on out, things will never be the same for our intrepid hero. Whether they’re learning to trust their hearts with someone new or setting out on a dragon-killing adventure, the ball has begun to roll, and there’s no stopping it.
Be sure to check back in for the rest of this story circle series, and catch up with some of our other great blog content, on Dangerpedia!