The Story Circle
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
The Story Circle is an alternative story structure focused on the protagonist’s journey through the narrative. Created by screenwriter Dan Harmon1, the Story Circle simplifies Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which is also called the Hero’s Journey2. Like the Hero’s Journey, Harmon’s Story Circle follows the transformation a protagonist undergoes when they leave a place of comfort to seek out their desires. This structure is often used for characters with positive arcs, but it can be used as a template for any story when a character changes after a new experience. This broad scope gives the Story Circle a flexibility that mirrors Aristotle’s ‘beginning-middle-end paradigm,’3 allowing writers to apply it to almost any narrative.
Harmon’s Story Circle is made up of eight steps situated around the circle. The circle is divided into a top and a bottom half; the hero starts at the top, descends to the bottom, and ascends to the top again. “Why this ritual of descent and return?” Harmon asks. “Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.”4 The two halves of the circle play into that rhythm by representing a multitude of opposing ideals: order and chaos, life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness. In each case, the hero starts with the familiar—order, life, consciousness—and embarks on a journey that takes them into unfamiliar territory—chaos, death, unconsciousness. Invariably, the hero’s experiences in the unknown world will reshape them, and when they return to the familiar world, they will be a different person than they were when they entered.
Video game narratives are natural candidates for Harmon’s Story Circle, as they focus on players overcoming obstacles. Character-driven genres like role-playing games and action-adventures are a particularly good fit, as they often feature heroic protagonists on complex journeys that map onto Harmon’s steps. One such game is Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy X, which tells the story of a young athlete, Tidus, who is transported into an unknown world and must find his way home. Like so many protagonists before him, Tidus walks the Story Circle’s eight steps, journeying from order into chaos. When he returns to the world of order, he has been changed by his experiences, bringing his story to its end.
1 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 101: Super Basic Sh*t. Channel101, 2009.
2 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
3 Aristotle. Poetics (sec. 1450b). Perseus Digital Library.
4 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
* Reference Footage: dansg08. Final Fantasy X HD Remaster – The Movie – Marathon Edition (All Cutscenes/Story). YouTube, 2014.
** Reference Script: Auronlu. Final Fantasy X Game Script, version 4.0. Istad.org, 2007.