I came across the phrase ‘Harmon story circle’ on Twitter the other day and thought ‘ooh, a construct I don’t know’. Five minutes of Googling later and I am a teensy bit disappointed because it’s basically a variation of the heroic cycle. That said, Dan Harman (writer of, among other things, the brilliant series Community) clearly knows what he’s doing so it’s worth taking a closer look at his article.
Harmon fully acknowledges that he’s using Joseph Campbell as a basis for his technique. The difference is more one of contemporary language than anything else. Campbell was writing in the 40s and 50s, and focused very much on the unifying heroic monomyth – the aspects of the hero that remained constant across centuries of oral and written storytelling. Obviously that hasn’t changed wildly in the last 60 years but Harman, writing for modern TV audiences, uses the same idea in a slightly different way. His focus is not on the growth arc of the character over time, but on constructing a compelling episodic story for the same characters week after week, with minimal growth. Any change is superficial, so the characters can start again in much the same place next episode.(This isn’t the case for all TV shows, of course, but whilst there’s some character growth in Community it’s pretty intermittent.)
He makes a very interesting point at the beginning of his article:
How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice.
If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them.
Essentially, be careful who you show first because the audience will assume that is the protagonist and immediately start to empathise. I think this is much more the case in TV than on the page – we respond faster to visual stimuli so, when the visual stimuli is ink on paper, we have to work harder to make that connection. But the idea about pity is a good one. Engage sympathy and you engage empathy.
His second good point comes at the ‘call to action’ stage and again is prompted by visual stimuli. What could be compelling enough that your hero leaves his comfortable normality behind and strikes out into the unknown? Especially if he’s resisting the call.
Figure out what your “movie poster” is. What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love?
This isn’t a change from Campbell, it’s just a different perspective – a way of clarifying what the hook of your story is. If you can keep the movie poster of your story at the forefront, that will help ensure you’re going in the right direction with every word.
It’s actually been a surprisingly hard thing for me to coalesce. What is the movie poster for Spiritus? Probably an invading army, but that doesn’t happen in the book until two thirds of the way through. That suggests there’s something off with the structure and pacing (I already knew that, but this is a nice way of pinpointing a problem area). The move poster for Corpus, on the other hand, is dead simple to imagine because my skill at structure and pacing had come on a lot when I wrote that.
The Abyss/Revelation phase of Campbell’s circle – the midpoint of the arc – is where Harmon recommends you put in any plot twists, and make them significant. He also points out that this is the point of choice for the hero. I hadn’t really considered it in Campbell’s cycle but, assuming that your hero resists the call to action, up until now everything has happened whether they wanted it to or not. The moment of revelation is where the hero HAS to choose, HAS to have agency, and the rest of the story is the consequences of that choice. If there is no active choice here, you lose momentum and probably the audience’s empathy.
The rest of Harmon’s article – and the steps in the cycle – pretty much boil down to ‘if you’re writing a love story, do this bit here; if you’re writing a thriller, do this bit here’. It sounds horribly formulaic, breaking stories down like that, but the point (which I’ve made before, and will doubtless make again) is that this is how the Western world understands stories. If it doesn’t fit this pattern, it isn’t recognisable and therefore runs a severe risk of not being accepted. I’m not saying don’t try to break the mould. But you need to understand what you’re breaking, and have a good reason to do so.
Anyway, long story short: the Harmon Story Circle is exactly the same as Campbell’s Heroic Monomyth, but with a greater emphasis on the visuals. I didn’t learn much new from it, but it did provide a new perspective on some of the old points.