“Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat- whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke- it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say ‘yum.'”

What does it take to make a great story? Is it when the storyteller is particularly adept at creating a large and complex world, like what we see in The Lord of the Rings saga? Is it when the characters are deep and well-developed, like what we might see in Forrest Gump? Or, at the end of the day, do all good stories effectively adhere to the same basic formula and we wouldn’t want to have it any other way? American writer Dan Harmon seems to think so.

Perhaps best known for co-creating Rick and Morty with Justin Roiland and creating the comedy series Community, Dan Harmon describes what might be known as the Story Circle. Also known as the Hero’s Journey and derived from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, the Story Circle is a universal construct that can be applied to any story in any medium. Or at least the good ones.

The YouTube video at the bottom of this post explains the concept better and more fully than I ever could, but the main idea is that the “hero” in every good story follows the same fundamental trajectory. They start from a place of stability and relative comfort, develop a desire for something, dive into a different state to get that thing, pay dearly for it, and emerge anew the other side with a fresh perspective.

Story Circle

This concept of a hero’s journey applies equally, whether you’re dissecting an epic Michael Crichton novel or looking a little closer at a simple children’s book. The protagonist faces a conflict, fights an internal conflict, and emerges a hero on the other side.

It’s what happened to Simba in The Lion King. When he faced the ghost of his father, he had to come to terms with his true destiny, leave the falsehood of his “Hakuna Matata” life, and retake his rightful place as the leader of his pride. It’s what we saw in Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in Her, when he lost his relationship with the digital incarnation of Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha.

We’ve all been taught the simpler conflict-and-resolution structure before, but the hero’s journey really helps his understand how to write stories that really resonate with the audience. Whether you’re making up a fictional tale of hobbits and wizards or you’re recounting your real trip through the Australian Outback, it’s worth keeping this “story circle” in mind.

Pull your audience into your world. Take them on a journey and make them care about a humble farm boy from Tatooine as he strives to become a true Jedi Master. Maybe throw in a fart joke for good measure.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)