'Rick and Morty' Explained through the Dan Harmon Story Circle

'Rick and Morty' Explained through the Dan Harmon Story Circle

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When you think of formulaic television comedy, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s chaotic Rick and Morty probably isn’t the first show to come to mind. Heck, for that matter, Harmon’s genre-bending Community also seems more like a trope-tweaker than a cookie-cutter sitcom.

Paramount Studios

Tweakin' them tropes, NBD.

And yet.

Harmon has a road map that he uses to plot out stories on the shows that he runs.  He didn’t invent it -- not exactly -- but his version has become a comedy writing bible, providing a loose structure upon which all kinds of wacky weirdness can hang.

It’s the Dan Harmon Story Circle, folks. If you want to write a sitcom, grab a pencil.

“People will mistake it for saying all stories are the same,” Harmon told MSNBC’s Ari Melber. “Or all stories follow the same structure. It’s a very nuanced difference to say information has shapes.” 

That shape of a story looks a lot like the work of mythology guru Joseph Cambell.  He popularized the Hero’s Journey in his book The Power of Myth and the accompanying PBS documentary, no doubt responsible for countless donations your mom made to public television fundraisers. 

Campbell’s Journey is sketched out in the illustration below.  If it seems obtuse, think of it in terms of Star Wars -- this is pretty much the blueprint George Lucas used to map out Luke Skywalker’s adventure. Substitute the graphic’s walking stick for a light saber and you got an all-time blockbuster.

Wikimedia Commons

All journeys end where they started, with a heavy-ass backpack.

Harmon took Campbell’s work (which itself was cribbed from Carl Jung and probably every storyteller who ever sketched a dinosaur on a cave wall) and pared it down to something he could share with dorky comics in sitcom writers’ rooms.

“I boiled down to eight because Campbell's work is Campbell's work,” says Harmon. “All of my work is a kind of hacky attempt to distill his very cultural work down to almost a kind of very Asperger-y matter of math.”

What are the eight steps?  Here’s Harmon’s Story Circle, down-and-dirty nutshell version:  

  1. You – A character is in a zone of comfort
  2. Need – But they want something
  3. Go – They enter an uncomfortable situation
  4. Search – And adapt to it
  5. Find – The hero gets what they wanted!
  6. Take – And pays a heavy price for it
  7. Return They return to where it all began
  8. Change And they are forever changed 

Need another visual?

Adult Swim

Comedy, meet Harmon-y math.

Sure, great, charts.  But how does the Story Circle work when plotting actual comedy?  Lucky for us, Harmon has provided a demonstration of how the Story Circle helped develop an episode of Rick and Morty.

In a tutorial posted on Adult Swim’s YouTube channel, Harmon breaks down episode 202, “Mortynight Run.”  Let’s track Morty’s journey through the episode.

You –  The You part of the story is also where you (the writer) introduce You (the protagonist). That’s Morty, the hero we identify and empathize with. 

We start the story with a driving lesson, a grandfather-and-grandson activity that finds Morty in a zone of comfort. Cool!  He’s finally learning to drive!

Adult Swim

If you sell arms to mercenaries, always get their business cards.

Need – But his apple cart gets tipped over when he finds out that Rick is an arms dealer. Ethical quandary!  Morty tries to convince Rick that he could undo his bad deed by buying back the weapon but Rick responds with a disinterested “uh-huh.”

This is the “something ain’t quite right” part of the story. Things are now off-balance in Morty’s universe so he has a need to set things right. In some stories, it’s the “call to adventure” -- Rick’s recklessness is Morty’s signal that he needs to get off his ass and do something.

Go – Thanks to Rick’s indifference, Morty has to get uncomfortable and undo his grandfather’s damage. 

This is the stage where most stories really get moving.  Morty isn’t usually the one driving the action, but this is an episode where Morty is literally learning to drive Rick’s spacebuggy.  Luckily, the assassin who bought Rick’s gun gave Morty a business card -- so the boy knows where he must go.

Search – And what better way for Morty to go than by stealing Rick’s ship.

Joseph Campbell called this stage “the Road of Trials,” and Morty’s test is using his still-evolving driving skills to search for the assassin’s location.  Yes, yes, there’s a crash involved, but Morty passes the test with flying colors. 

Find – But is Morty in over his head?  He finds his target and the crash inadvertently stops the assassination, saving a weird alien life form named Fart.  (Yeah, Fart. Harmon-philes know about the man’s obsession with poop. His Tumblr was called Dan Harmon Poops, for poop’s sake.)

Find represents the midpoint of the story, the stage where our hero finds what he’s looking for.  Morty has indeed found Fart and he accomplishes his mission by freeing the gaseous blob!

The second part of the story is set into motion.  If a story has a plot twist, here’s the place to twist and twist hard -- so here we go.

Adult Swim

Morty begins to learn that it's never wise to free a Fart.

Take – Morty feels victorious, but of course, there is a heavy price to be paid. 

Rick arrives to warn Morty that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s crashed into a Galactic Federation Outpost!  And that’s not the worst of it. 

Turns out Fart can change the nature of matter itself, making it a very popular bounty target.  Soon, armed goons arrive to take Fart back, causing a hell of a lot of mayhem as Rick, Morty, and Fart try to make their escape.

“Hey, Morty, remember when you said selling a gun was as bad as pulling the trigger? How do you feel about all of these people who are getting killed today because of your choice?”

Morty insists that he did the right thing -- but maybe morality isn’t so black and white after all?  

Take is the stage where heroes face the consequences of their actions.  As Fart destroys all of their attackers, Morty has to question everything he’s done.

Return – Morty returns Fart to his hole -- er, wormhole portal. Fart is grateful but his work isn’t done -- he promises to gather his homies for the cleansing.  (Cleansing = killing all carbon-based life, a cancer for higher life forms like Fart.)  Fart is sure that Morty understands -- after all, he was the one who said all life must be protected, even if it requires sacrifice.

Everything has come full circle but everything has changed.  Morty has accomplished his mission.  But at the cost of millions of lives?

Adult Swim

Morty has no choice but to blast a Fart.

Change – A conflicted Morty decides he has to destroy Fart for the greater good. 

Change is often the place for the final showdown. The Morty at the story’s beginning could never kill Fart.  But because of everything that’s happened, a changed Morty can trick Fart into doing a musical number, then obliterate the blob with Rick’s blaster. 

As Harmon notes, “it’s a bad show for kids.”

And there you go!  Morty’s journey through episode 202, broken down into 8 story beats.  But here’s a cool feature of the Story Circle -- it not only works for the main plot but for building out stories for supporting characters as well.  

The Jerry Circle

Harmon demonstrates how the Story Circle works for the episode's subplot featuring Jerry.  This one isn’t so involved, but you can see how the circle helps develop Jerry’s story. Here’s the short version:

You – Jerry is out for a space ride with Rick and Morty.  Just a dad helping his kid learn to drive.  A seemingly comfortable situation. 

Need – But Rick has arms dealing business so he drops Jerry at Jerryboree -- literally a Jerry DayCare. Rick needs to find a way out. 

Go – But because he’s so ineffectual at putting up a fight, Jerry surrenders to the weird world of Jerryboree.  It doesn’t hurt that they’re playing the Midnight Run DVD, complete with director’s commentary.

Adult Swim

There's always a home entertainment system to be hooked up at Jerryboree.

Search – Jerry soon finds himself talking to the other Jerrys and adapting to his new environment. 

Find – But Jerry’s attitude changes when he discovers a group of older, world-weary Jerrys -- versions of himself that were never retrieved by their own Ricks and Mortys. Unnerved by the idea of being stuck in Jerry DayCare forever, he takes action and attempts to leave. “OK,” says the caretaker. “That was always allowed.”

Adult Swim

It's hard out there for a Jerry.

Take – Unfortunately for Jerry, the price he pays for his freedom is the discovery that he can’t function all that well in the real world. How does public transportation work anyway?

Return - Jerry returns to Jerry DayCare, understanding that it’s the best place for him. 

Change - He’s now at peace with his Jerry-ness when Rick and Morty come to pick him up at the end of the day.  There might be a literal change as well -- Morty lost their claim ticket so it’s not entirely clear if they’ve retrieved the right Jerry.

And that’s Harmon’s Story Circle. Take it for a spin yourself -- watch an episode of Rick and Morty, Community, or just about any television comedy and follow the steps each character takes.  It’s a surprisingly flexible formula that anyone can use to create successful stories.  Even ones about Farts. 

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Top image: Adult Swim 


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