Mandatory Internet Disclaimer: I’m in the process of writing a tv pilot and like many people it seems, have been using Dan Harmon’s Story Circle to get me over many of the hurdles. I did the following as a mental exercise and found it helpful, so figured others might too.
Based on Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth,” the Story Circle boils down narrative to it’s essential components and exposes the basic architecture commonly found in most stories - from mythology and children’s stories, through to modern day literature, tv and movies.
There’s tons about this online, much better (betterly) written by Dan Harmon himself and to the uninitiated HERE is a great place to start.
But to some of those more familiar with it, this may be useful:
Why Red Riding Hood is Better Than Goldilocks (But It’s Better to Be a Bear)
As you may know, the Story Circle begins quite simply with a circle, because our story is going to be cyclical.
To establish a theme, we divide the story in half, first vertically then horizontally, like so:
Then we assign “emotionally charged dichotomies” to each half. In this instance I’ve just thrown some on there to get us started. The themes are big and broad, but if we add them together we get this:
Now if we run a character around it we have a person who (broadly) lives in a world of dishonest order, enters a world of dishonest chaos, finds honesty in the chaos and brings it back to restore honest order.
That could be a character in a world ruled by fascists, who goes into the wilderness, finds a rag tag bunch of rebels and returns with them to take on the fascists. I guess that’s Star Wars.
(Apologies if you know this already and have read it better explained by Dan Harmon, I promise I’m going somewhere.)
Then, we begin filling in the narrative, as detailed perfectly HERE. And that looks like this:
Little Red Riding Hood
So, in an attempt to get myself out of a slump while writing I decided to lay this model over some very familiar stories and unpack them, to see how they work and I found it not only massively helpful but - at least to myself - quite interesting.
Starting with Little Red Riding Hood, I retreaded the story around the circle.
It’s a story about a little girl, who goes into an unfamiliar world, to care for her sick grandmother, meets the Big Bad Wolf, who eats her whole, is rescued and returned to safety.
It’s a really classic story. Her call to adventure is a sick grandmother, which makes her an immediately likeable and identifiable protagonist and her journey begins with a literal crossing of the threshold as she is forced to enter the unfamiliar world of the woods.
Also, the fact that she and her grandmother are swallowed whole in most versions of the story and literally cut out of the wolf’s belly - only to be found alive and well - perfectly adheres to the Campbellian tropes of death and rebirth at points 5 and 6 respectively.
It bummed me out a lot that the woodsman (or hunter) who comes and saves her is a total deus ex machina, but I let it slide. Maybe she met him at step 4 and told him to drop by later.
Anyway, so unpacking it I started to examine the themes and came up with these:
I rushed through this so it’s in no way a perfect, and I played around with language a bit liberally, but here’s my reading:
Little Red Riding Hood leaves the safety of her home alone, enters a dangerous situation alone, experiences the danger together with her grandmother and the woodsman and together they return to safety.
In this interpretation, it’s a story about the benefits of family/community and the dangers of solitude. Our heroine begins the story entering the woods alone and faces life threatening danger, but finds safety in numbers and by the end, newly equipped with an almost perfect little family unit, she finds security.
So I enjoyed that experiment so much I decided to try again, but in transposing this same model onto the story of Goldilocks, the results were much less satisfying.
Goldilocks too, begins her journey by entering the woods but in this case without forethought or motive. Her call to adventure is at best hunger and the desire for sit down and a nap. In this regard she’s certainly relatable (I seldom have more ambitious motivations myself) but it’s no sick grandmother.
She too encounters a house, but it’s an unfamiliar house and she gains entry through nefarious means and proceeds to eat their porridge, breaks an infants chair and (presumably tuckered out from all the home invasion and vandalism) takes a nap.
So far it’s a story about a girl out on a stroll who performs a B and E on a whim.
She is then woken by three reasonably disgruntled homeowners - which in this case happen to be bears - who chase her off. Presumably to her home, where we can only hope she learns a lesson.
But what’s the lesson?
I’ll come to that in a second, but let’s first take a look at the story as it adheres to the Hero’s Journey.
Though there’s no clear call to adventure, we do have a crossing of the threshold (into the woods), a road of trials (testing out the porridge, the chairs and the beds) a death in the “innermost cave” (a nap), a resurrection (waking up) and a magic flight (running away.)
As for moral and theme, I identified this story as a sort of coming of age story, about loss of innocence through a frightening experience. Goldilocks learns for the first time that her careless actions can have potentially deadly consequences.
Despite appearances it’s largely an internal journey for the protagonist.
She begins as an innocent - unselfaware and unafraid, she heads out into the unknown, experiences fear there and returns with that fear.
Put simply, this could be seen as a story about a person who faces the frightening realities of the world, becomes overwhelmed and retreats.
But by now I’d spent an afternoon on it and wasn’t prepared to leave it there, so I set about making things right. The first step was to find different protagonist.
The Three Bears
Now we’re cooking.
I took a little more poetic license with this one since 1) it’s pretty much undocumented what the bears did after the whole ordeal and 2) I dunno, I can just really jive with these bears.
So in this model we have a story about a family of three bears, whose porridge is just too damn hot. So in an effort to ease the tension and before any tempers flare (you know how ornery Daddy Bears can be) they decide to take a walk and let the porridge cool in it’s own time.
On their constitutional the family shoot the breeze and do whatever it is bears do: swat a fish, scratch their back on a tree, growl. Bear stuff.
Deciding sufficient porridge cooling time has elapsed the bears return home to find an intruder has eaten the infant’s breakfast, broken it’s adorable little bear chair and is now sleeping in it’s (one can only imagine delightful) little bed.
In a moment of justifiable panic, the bears promptly 86 the interloper.
When the dust has settled and the cops have been out to give the place a once over (in my head the mismatched cops are an otter and a stoat who were partnered up against their wishes - will they ever get along?) it is then that the bears can begin to heal.
Through the experience of fixing Baby Bear’s chair and putting right what once went wrong the bears become one and have never been stronger as a family unit. Finally, they can begin to put the whole experience behind them.
The story of the bears is one similar to that of Goldilocks, in that most of the change is internal, but this new interpretation subverts those themes for the better.
The bears initially seek comfort from external things (warm porridge, comfortable chairs and beds) are taken out into the cold, return home to the chilling experience of being intruded upon and finally find the warmth they sought from porridge was right there all along, in the form of family.
To wrap up, the examples in this essay just about scratch the surface of how much use I get out of the Story Circle and the Monomyth, but sharing this exercise has at the very least dusted off some cobwebs.
The point of this essay is merely to show how great this tool is and how I use it. I almost certainly wouldn’t be calling myself a writer without it.
My thanks to Dan Harmon, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler for all the wise words and invaluable help. And thanks to all who read this to the end.
Best of luck to you all.