Issue 14: On story circles
4 min read

Issue 14: On story circles

A few weeks ago, I started rewatching one of my favorite TV shows, Community. Set at Greendale Community College, it follows the adventures of a study group and is known for its meta-humor, pop culture parodies, and experimental genre-bending episodes. Paintball! Claymation! Darkest timelines! Making merciless fun of Glee! It was truly streets ahead.

It’s a show that I watched live with my friend Maura. When I made my first foray into Tumblr GIF-making, it was with a GIF of Donald Glover crying, “My emotions!” (It’s now archived on Giphy, with the DivX logo betraying my teenage torrenting days.) It introduced me to the world of TV recaps and culture critic Emily VanDerWerff’s phenomenal writing which I still follow today.

Dan Harmon, the creator and showrunner, also introduced me to what I have found to be the most useful outline when it comes to storytelling. In school, I learned about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and later read about Kurt Vonnegut’s universal shapes of stories. While those fit specific genres very well, Dan Harmon’s story circle is a lot simpler and much more widely applicable.

It looks like this:

A picture of Nicole's notebook with an illustration of Dan Harmon's story circle
  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.

Each episode of Community follows this story circle. Although I love the show for its parodies and meta commentary, I love it most of all because it’s ultimately just a sitcom about random people who can be kind of shitty and selfish but repeatedly try to do right by each other, even when that means parting ways or letting go. Growth is at its core.

Like many fundamentals of storytelling, characters must have desires and encounter conflict. But what I like most about the story circle is the last step: having changed. Writing about external and internal pursuits is one thing, but writing towards satisfying and meaningful change is another.

There are the planners and pantsers, those who rigorously outline before they write and those who simply write by the seat of their pants. Regardless of your writing style, I think story circles are a helpful place to start. I used this last year when I prepared to do half of National Novel Writing Month. Structurally, the novel would be told from four different points of view, so I wrote a story circle for each of my four main characters and identified places where I wanted their circles to intersect. Although it wasn’t super detailed, it allowed me to see the overarching plot points and character arcs. It provided me with enough structure to keep up the velocity of writing every day for a whole month while still allowing for more exploratory and meandering writing sessions.

I haven’t worked on my novel at all since November 30, 2019 (lol) but I am finally returning to it now with some renewed energy and am looking at these first ~28,000 words with the story circles in mind.

If you can, join me this Thanksgiving in donating to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger to help purchase turkeys for New York families (via Nisha Chittal’s great newsletter) or contributing to your local food bank.

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Recent reads & other media

I finished Brandon Taylor’s excellent Real Life, a campus novel that distinctly rejects the white gaze. I was particularly impressed by how Taylor examines the different types of humiliation the protagonist, Wallace, experiences at the hands of white institutions and individuals — and makes the reader sit in those humiliations.

There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen.

Getting back into my reading groove, I also started Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. Call me Don Draper.

In addition to finishing my Community rewatch, I also rewatched one of my favorite comfort movies, Under the Tuscan Sun, because who doesn’t dream of refurbishing an Italian villa with a chosen family that includes Sandra Oh while eating copious amounts of pasta and gelato? Vulture also published this great Q&A with Diane Lane about the film last month.

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

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The pleasure of stepping on crunchy leaves. DIY twist candles. Get a bird to do your work. Vibing to music on hold. This face mask is incredible. Aghhh why did he eat the bee? And you may find yourself in a Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell!

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