Magic Bullet: The Quest for the Perfect Story Structure (Part 2)

Why be a fool when you can chase away
Your blind and your gloom
I have blessed each one of these bullets
And they shine just like a spoon

Just the Right Bullets—Tom Waits

If you’re not familiar with Dan Harmon’s novels, the reason is obvious. He hasn’t written any. Dan Harmon is a TV guy, the force behind the NBC sitcom The Community. Harmon is a huge fan of Joseph Campbell. I’ve always loved Campbell in theory, yet I’ve never been able to pull it off in practical situations (ie actually writing scenes). The mythical signposts set out by Campbell never seemed to jive with me. Well, they certainly did with Harmon.

In the last post, I explored the Goal, Conflict, Disaster model put forth by Randy Ingermanson. His scene by scene structure always pits characters against conflict and even more conflict. This certainly drives the plot, but what if we want our characters to win once in a while? Harmon’s story circle is the answer.

Harmon outlined his technique with Channel 101, a five-minute film festival held in Los Angeles. His technique is designed for time limited projects, like sitcoms, and it has a bit of magic in it.

His original version had eight steps:

1) You
2) Need
3) Go
4) Search
5) Find
6) Take
7) Return
8) Change

These are mapped onto a circle with the 1 at noon, the 5 at six o’clock. If you’re a big Joseph Campbell fan, steps 3 through 7 are the deep unconscious part of the journey. Harmon offers some film examples for the above the line and below the line parts of the journey.

  • Robocop: Above the line, cop. Below the line, Robocop.
  • Die Hard: Above the line, bad marriage. Below the line, terrorist attack.
  • Citizen Kane: Above the line, news reel. Below the line, truth.
  • MacBeth: Above the line, hero. Below the line, villain.
  • Star Wars: Above the line, farm boy. Below the line, adventurer.

You see the pattern? In each example, the character breaks out into something new and life changing in the middle section of the story.

Here’s the meaning of the steps:

Who is the character? Set up the background and the setting. This is the character’s normal life. The goal for the author is to get the reader/viewer to identify with the character.

The character has to want something. Badly. This mirrors the Goal from Ingermanson’s Goal, Conflict, Disaster model. In short, this is the reason for the story.

The situation changes and forces the character to take action. This is where the adventure truly begins.

Here the character adapts to the new situation. He or she makes a plan. If this were an episode of the A-Team, they’d be building something with armor and a flamethrower.

The character gets what he or she wanted. The need is fulfilled. This is where Harmon’s model veers away from the Goal, Conflict, Disaster model.

The character tries to get away with his or her prize. This can also be the heavy price he or she pays for this prize. This is the part that most intrigued me. I’ve never seen a model with this aspect, but I really love it. Often times heros sacrifice much to gain victory. But then what? How does the hero deal with the aftermath? The people he or she has burned along the way?

The character comes back to his or her normal life. Of course everything will be different because the character is different. The journey has changed him or her.

Life is not the same anymore. The character has achieved his or her need, and brought back new knowledge.

An alternate version of these steps are:

  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

Harmon actually shows how you can condense these 8 steps into a 37.5 second story. The numbers in parenthesis refer to how many seconds of film time are used.

“The Guy Whose Soda Turned Out to Contain Poison”

(2.1) The guy [you]
(2.2) Makes a stink face [need]
(2.3) Starts inspecting the soda can [go]
(2.4) Runs finger over ingredients [search]
(2.5) Finds “poison” in ingredients [find]
(2.6) Chokes [take]
(2.7) Falls down [return]
(2.8) Dead [change]

All of this is quite compelling and thought provoking. The structure, wrapped around a circle, gives it a level of finality. I mean, you can’t get more fundamental than a circle.

The only hang up I have about this model, is that is words tremendously well for a short, time restricted project.

  • Commercial: Awesome
  • Half-Hour Sitcom: Perfect
  • Hour Drama: A good fit
  • Mini-Series or Novel: Would you run out of steam?

My worry is that as these 8 points get stretched farther and farther apart over the course of a novel, there might be some dragging points.

Of course there is no magic bullet for story structure. We all use a combination of methods. Even then, you needn’t be robotic about it. Follow your instincts and write what you need to write. If it works, who cares.

Tim Kane


About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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One Response to Magic Bullet: The Quest for the Perfect Story Structure (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-24-2011 « The Author Chronicles

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