Writing in Circles
February 26th, 2013
Writing Theories vary, and I am going to share a few ama-zing theories in the circle of life that is writing that Dan Harmon (American writer, performer, and creator and former executive producer for the NBC television comedy series Community, and, along with Rob Schrab, a founder of the alternative television network/website Channel 101.) created.
It wasn’t until I read this book And this book:
That I was able to write effectively because I learned a few important things about the business of writing:
1) THE OUTLINE
2) THE OUTLINE
3) THE OUTLINE
Am I missing anything?
Many people view writing as mystical, even I did in college and even a few years after. In movies you see a writer sit down in front of a blank page and write “chapter one” or some quip opening or weather description. I thought that was how to write as well (and that’s why my first novel–which STILL isn’t done took three years while my second took five months.) Stephen King once said it shouldn’t take more than three months to write a novel and I thought he was crazy. Nope, he just has an effective process for writing, a skilled writer, he doesn’t only write when inspiration comes and he probably doesn’t even begin writing until he’s fleshed out an outline (which can run 60 or more pages).
So, whether you plan to write screenplays, novels, essays, etc. read Tom Lennon’s book above because it impacted my novel and took away all the frustration that I had in writing before. (I created my own unique Type-A process using his ideas that I will post about later.)
Now onto structure. Some fantastic ideas from Dan Harmon (right from his site: channel101.wikia.com)
Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit
“Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.” -Dan Harmon
- . A character is in a zone of comfort,
- . But they want something.
- . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- . Adapt to it,
- . Get what they wanted,
- . Pay a heavy price for it,
- . Then return to their familiar situation,
- . Having changed.
“Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.” -Dan Harmon
Now, writing theory then back to structure (because theory relies on/creates structure–you can literally put this circle atop the numbered one):
Conscious and Unconscious is the RHYTHM of PSYCHOLOGY.
Order and Chaos is the RHYTHM of SOCIETY.
“Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story?
Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.” -Dan Harmon
Harmon on BIOLOGY:
The universe around us is dying, moving from a state of high energy to low. On Earth, however, things tend to move in a contrary direction. Eggs turn into chickens. People turn into more people. Flesh heals, stupid becomes smarter, and the planet, once cold and empty, is now so full of life that you can’t leave bread on the counter. How has life managed to cheat a dying universe like this?
This planetwide creature known as “Life on Earth” has been able to grow and thrive through an evolutionary arms race between the various parts of itself. The more advanced parts of life EAT the less advanced parts, thereby becoming more plentiful until a more advanced part consumes it. This causes all life to advance and spread. The ongoing battle between eaters and eaten is responsible for that state-of-the-art biological weapon you call a brain, and it may even lead, one day, to humans flinging themselves like spores, to dead planets and bringing those planets to life.
To you and me, consciously, death may be a bummer, but to Mother Gaia, to life itself, unconsciously, it is absolutely essential- 50% of how shit gets done.
Your mind is a home, with an upstairs and a downstairs.
Upstairs, in your consciousness, things are well-lit and regularly swept. Friends visit. Scrabble is played, hot cocoa is brewing. It is a pleasant, familiar place.
Downstairs, it is older, darker and much, much freakier. We call this basement the unconscious mind.
The unconscious is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the stuff you don’t, won’t and/or can’t think about. According to Freud, there are dirty pictures of your mother down there. According to Jung, there are pipes, wires, even tunnels down there that connect your home to others. And even though it contains life-sustaining energies (like the fuse box and water heater), it’s a primitive, stinky, scary place and it’s no wonder that, given the choice, we don’t hang out down there.
However, your pleasure, your sanity and even your life depend on occasional round trips. You’ve got to change the fuses, grab the Christmas ornaments, clean the litter box. To the extent that we keep the basement door sealed, the entire home becomes unstable. The creatures downstairs get louder and the guy upstairs (your ego) tries to cover the noise with neurotic behavior. For some, eventually, the basement door can come right off its hinges and the slimy, primal denizens of the deep can become Scrabble partners. You might call this a nervous breakdown or psychotic break, it doesn’t matter. The point is: Occasional ventures by the ego into the unconscious, through therapy, meditation, confession, sex, violence, or a good story, keep the consciousness in working order.
This is the rhythm of psychology: Conscious-unconscious-conscious-unconscious-etc.
Societies are basically macrocosms (big versions) of people, only instead of “consciousness,” a society’s upstairs is “order,” and its basement is “chaos.”
Whereas the health of an individual depends on the ego’s regular descent and return to and from the unconscious, a society’s longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas.
In their most dramatic, revolutionary form, these people are called heroes, but every day, society is replenished by millions of people diving into darkness and emerging with something new (or forgotten): scientists, painters, teachers, dancers, actors, priests, athletes, architects and most importantly, me, Dan Harmon.
Societies are macrocosms of people in another way: Eventually, they die. There is competition between different societies. The losers are eaten and the winners reproduce.
Like people, societies become neurotic and can eventually break down when they make the mistake of thinking the downstairs shouldn’t exist. America is a terrific example of this, as our fear of the unknown continues to create more unknowns and more fear. It’s now punishable by bombing to have a problem with America’s bombing policy. In a human being, the equivalent would be diagnosable as symptomatic. Our basement is brimming with creepy crawlies, the pressure on the door is building. There has never been a bigger need for heroes and they have never been in such scarcity.
One of two things is going to happen. Someone’s going to open that door and go down there, or that door is going fly off its hinges. Either way, social evolution will not be cheated of its rhythm and it’s going to get sloppy. We all know it. We all walk around with that instinctive understanding in our unconscious minds.
The rhythm of society: Order-chaos-order-chaos-etc.
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.”
Now Harmon Simplifies before moving on:
Same steps from the first story circle only simplified.
Jack goes up the beanstalk, Jack finds some cool shit, Jack steals it, runs back down, and gives it to his Mom.
We need go search- We need get fire, we need good woman, we need land moon- but most importantly, we need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting and long. So I am going to shoot you over to http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_104:_The_Juicy_Details
“I hope I’ve made it clear to you before I do that that the REAL structure of any good story is simply circular – a descent into the unknown and eventual return – and that any specific descriptions of that process are specific to you and your story.
Here is my detailed description of the steps on the circle. I’m going to get really specific, and I’m not going to bother saying, “there are some exceptions to this” over and over. There are some exceptions to everything, but that’s called style, not structure.”
And a note on LIFE EXPERIENCE: It doesn’t matter how much theory you know or how well you structure and outline, if you don’t go out and live a life worth writing about–or one that inspires writing, you’ve got nothing. (Warner Bros. told me this themselves when I met with them! More on that meeting later.)
Proof this works? My very first script EVER took me three weeks to write only (as I followed the guidelines in the two books mentioned above) and I made it to the top 5% of the Warner Bros. Television Writer’s Program out of 1,730 other seasoned writers in Los Angeles, CA landing the tangible opportunity to sit in the Warner Bros. studio and meet with Chris Mack and his team to learn more. Since then, I have improved and have an arsenal of original scripts and a new spec to present them this year. I had the structure, the outline, and a little bit of my personal life in my spec which I have pasted somewhere on this site.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to spend the whole five minutes going to the links I provided to Dan Harmon’s Site to get an even more in-depth perspective. Especially the one on the green photo above.
Other resources for writers:
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