Narrative Structure: Story Circle and Story Spine

These last several months I’ve been really immersed in comedy and narrative. In January, I completed Level 6 at the Hideout Theatre, which is all about long form, narrative improv. Then, I re-enrolled in Level 6 in April and May and just completed another set of showcases with that class. In between, I’ve taken two sketch classes (am enrolled in another one right now), finished two sitcom pilots with my writing partner, and am in the middle of writing another sitcom pilot and a short. So… yeah… I’m all about narratives and story structure right now.

The Obsession With Story Structure

As a comedy nerd and writer, I am friends with other comedians and writers. Everyone clings to their preferred formula, structure, writing style, etc. but the topic that comes up the most is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, which, if you aren’t familiar with, is his formula for plotting narratives (like Community).

Story Circle

Dan Harmon - Story Circle - Story Structure

Each story plot is a circle, divided by 8. Here’s the breakdown (from the Channel 101 Wiki):

1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.

[Dan] Harmon calls his circles embryos—they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”
– How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community

I have friends who swear by this formula. I’ll admit that I personally have never tried writing anything with this story circle in mind, so I’m not the best person to explain how useful it is in the writing process.

Story Spine

On the other hand, I’m very familiar with story spine due to my long form improv classes. It’s also broken into 8 steps. Here’s the way I learned it:

1. Once upon a time…
2. Every day…
3. Until one day…
4. Because of that…
5. Because of that…
6. Because of that…
7. Until finally…
8. Ever since that day…

The story spine is taught as a way to perform long form narrative improv. It’s popular at the Hideout, but I’m sure other theaters use this technique as well. If practiced enough, the structure almost becomes innate, allowing for some really strange improv that somehow wraps up quite nicely. This is what made me fall in love with long form improv.

I’ve actually been using story spine to write my latest pilot idea, and I think it has really helped me shape my narrative.

Which Story Structure Is Better?

I don’t think there’s an answer. I think both methods are actually very similar. You could take each method to break down the same narrative and make it work. Even Pixar also has its own version of the story spine with only 7 steps (only two “Because of that…” steps).

I personally will continue working with the story spine I learned in improv for my current projects, but I do plan on playing with Dan Harmon’s method really soon.

Writers, do you have a preference?

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