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Dan Harmon’s 8 Step Algorithm For Telling a Story

By September 28, 2017No Comments

These days, screenwriter/showrunner Dan Harmon is best known for his ongoing work on Rick and Morty – an absurd, hilarious, and often genius combo of precisely structured randomness that tracks a teenage boy and his mad scientist uncle through time and space.

Before that, Harmon spent half a decade working on another cult-classic: Community, a single-cam sitcom that tracked a handful of misfits through the daily rigamaroll of community college.

Unlike Rick and Morty, Community began as a somewhat more conventional affair. Charmingly quick-witted, of course, but without the conceptual and structural experimentation that would come to define Harmon's style in the intervening years.

Of course, devotees of the show know all to well that any semblance of conventionality was short-lived. It took less than a full season before Harmon hit his stride with increasingly experimental episodes built around stop-motion Christmas escapades, multiple timelines, zombie outbreaks, and, of course, paintball. In a word, things got meta. And while Community was never the mega-hit that Rick and Morty has since become, it's difficult to find a more a diehard fan base this side of Firefly.

The question is: why? Why does it all work? How is it that shows like Community and Rick and Morty, with all their experimental, meta-textual shenanigans, can still manage to feel so precisely ploddes and so consistently engaging in terms of story and character?

Scoff if you like, but there just so happens to be a crazy sort of logic that makes these shows work as legitimate narrative experiences, rather than as little more than fodder for fleeting internet memes. 

The key, as it so happens, rests in solid craftsmanship. There's a precision to Harmon's writing that grounds the chaos in an – admittedly sometimes loose – sense of narrative order.

Speaking to Wired in 2011, Dan Harmon revealed his 8 part circle – a sort of step-by-step narrative guide, not unlike the hero's journey – for grounding narrative in character growth. 

The steps are as follows:

1.  A character begins in a zone of comfort…

2.  But they want something…

3.  So they enter into an unfamiliar situation…

4.  And progress through a series of trials in order to adapt.

5.  Eventually, they get what they want…

6.  But pay a heavy price for it…

7.  Then return to their familiar situation…

8.  Having changed.

Judging by his work on Community and Rick and Morty, the lesson that emerges from Harmon's model is an obvious one: if you ground your characters in some semblance of an authentic journey, your audience won't care where exactly that journey goes. In other words, the possibilities are endless – especially for a mind as strange and hilarious as Harmon's. 

So, if your screenplay takes place in a strange new world, or deals in complex concepts (comedic or otherwise), consider grounding your wild ideas in solid, easy-to-track characterization. Hook your reader with a satisfying arc, and you might just find they're willing follow you wherever you want them to go.