How to Create a Story According to Famous Writers

Stories have forms. Any story you tell works best if you recognize its shape and then reinforce it. This applies to a story of any length, whether it’s 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month 2017 , honing a favorite joke at a party, or even marketing something, including yourself. This even applies to Hemingway’s famous six-word story, “For Sale: Children’s Shoes That Were Never Worn.”

The following three structured guidelines aren’t the only templates for good writing. They simply describe the vast majority of stories in literature, theater, film and television up to this point. As you recount your story, consulting them early can save you some serious rewrites down the road.

Dan Harmon’s Plot Circle

Years before Community and Rick and Morty made it one of the most famous TV shows, Dan Harmon directed a web series called Laser Fart. It was a story about a superhero who can fart with lasers. And this has caused an amazing resonance thanks to its solid construction.

In a series of wiki essays for web series creators, Harmon detailed this structure, calling it a “story circle.” Read Harmon’s original essays on the Channel 101 Wiki , and see more discussions collected here .

Harmon identifies eight stages in the story:

  1. The character is in the comfort zone,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They find themselves in an unfamiliar situation
  4. Adapt to this,
  5. Get what you wanted
  6. Pay a high price for it
  7. Then get back to your normal situation
  8. By changing the.

Writer Alex Crumb charted the circle :

In general, use this guide to make sure your story is driven by your character’s actions. Notice how this structure combines the obstacles in the story with the goals of the protagonist. The character does something, so the world does something in return, so the character does something in return, and so on, just like in a game of tennis. Think about each Shakespeare play and how all obstacles arise from the actions of the hero and the villain and affect their next actions.

Or think of a typical sitcom episode that begins with an obstacle breaking the character’s comfort zone and follows the character returning everything to normal. (One of Harmon’s essays focuses on adapting a plot for television .)

Your story doesn’t have to include all eight steps on a page, but remember that readers will be imagining the missing steps in their head. Hemingway’s micro-story begins in Stage 8, when the would-be parent deals with the aftermath of their tragedy. The famous story “Lady or Tiger?” ends in breathtaking. Both stories entice the reader to fill in the missing steps.

In many stories, each protagonist has their own plot circle. In the community, Harmon and his collaborators mapped circles for each character and often displayed entire circles for specific scenes.

In some stories, different character circles are played out in a different order. In the mystery, the protagonist detective usually follows the usual circle, opening the second circle: the criminal. This second circle usually starts at the end, before moving backwards as the detective figures out the perpetrator’s methods and motives.

More information about Story Circles can be found on Harmon’s Wired profile and the links gathered here .

The Journey of a Hero Joseph Campbell

Harmon’s plot circle is inspired by the more complex structure of Joseph Campbell’s Journey of a Hero , as outlined in his book The Thousand-Footed Hero . Campbell was primarily an academic rather than a fiction writer, and his structure is more descriptive. It also includes more “optional” story elements.

As an academic classification of all narrative, Campbell’s analysis is controversial. But as a guide to the mythical narrative, this is a whole buffet of tropes. If you’re building a fairy tale of the epic genre, you can literally follow Campbell’s circle. Stories like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings create new myths from templates of old myths. (Lucas even cited Campbell as an influence.) It’s easy to grasp bizarre concepts like lightsabers and monster slug crime lords as they follow familiar storylines, storylines that precede what is written.

But in any story, no matter how postmodern or down-to-earth, you can add fun and adventure by including stages such as “rejecting the challenge” or “last minute danger.” If you’re working on a comedy, you might ironically insert one of these stages, parodying our human need to package everything into predictable narratives.

The forms of Kurt Vonnegut’s story

This is not physics, and there are several ways to think about the structure of your story. In his rejected master’s thesis in anthropology, Kurt Vonnegut outlined a story structure based on the good or bad states of the characters:

It’s a fun way to define a genre in an emotional way rather than in the look of the setting. Vonnegut explains the diagram above in a captivating five-minute conversation:

Designer Maya Eilam paints more forms of Vonnegut’s story , adding classic and modern examples. Note that Vonnegut’s forms also apply to ancient myths. Their flexibility can offer you more insight than Campbell’s monomyth. If you’re struggling to fit your beats into the plot circle and you’re sure the beats aren’t the problem, consider Vonnegut’s form in the story instead. Are you beating your characters enough? Are you giving them enough permission? If your graph runs flat or ends in the middle of the scale, is there a good reason?

Don’t let any of these shape pointers drag your story in a way that you don’t really want. If something is pulling you strongly in the “wrong” direction, then it’s just the right direction in disguise. Again, comedies often violate the norms of structure for good reason, as do postmodern stories that challenge our typical narratives. But the best way to challenge storytelling is to understand it.


Leave a Reply