At least since the time of Aristotle, we’ve known that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It seems obvious now: the set-up, the conflict, the resolution. Act One, Act Two, Act Three. These are the barest bones upon which to hang a tale. But also since the time of Aristotle, we’ve known that good stories go much deeper than that. Stories have shape and structure and beats and inciting incidents and reversals and setups and payoffs. They have dialogue and character arcs and settings and themes. There’s a lot to keep track of.
Investigating story structure isn’t so much about discovering the secret formula for blockbuster success, but it is about figuring out some of the commonalities of effective storytelling. What works? What doesn't work? If it doesn’t work, how can we fix it? What techniques might help us in our efforts?
And so writers break stories—our own and others. We tear them down into their smallest parts so we can see what makes them tick. We make detailed outlines and flow charts and note cards and graphs. It gets complicated.
One way to take control of the chaos is with a story circle. A story circle (sometimes called a story clock) is just one way of visualizing the elements of a story. Story circles have gained prominence in recent years due to the work of Dan Harmon (and the unfettered enthusiasm of his fans) but you'll also see them used frequently in explanations of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.*
A story circle is a flexible tool that isn’t tied to any particular philosophy of story, though. Rather than looking for Harmon’s Hard Eight or trying to ferret out the ten or seventeen or whatever stages of Campbell’s monomyth, I tend to stick with a simple three-act structure when I break down a story using a story circle, as in the example here:
Story Circle | Outline View
The story circle graphics on this site are interactive, so you can hover over elements for detail. Unfortunately, unless you have a large screen the text can be difficult to read. If that’s the case, you can use the link on the bottom right to pop the image into a larger window (still likely not very effective on small screens) or you can use the outline view link (top right above the graphic) for an easy-to-read outline. Outline elements can be clicked to show and hide additional details.
Even if you can’t quite read what’s in the circle, it serves as a nice snapshot of a story’s structure, and can be helpful in picking out symmetries you might not otherwise see. If the text is too small, I do encourage you when reading articles on this site to toggle back and forth between the story circle and the outline view for a deeper understanding of the stories under review.
Actually, what I encourage you to do is to break as many stories as you can on your own. A simple pencil and sheet of paper will do the job just fine, and you’ll learn more from doing it yourself than you’ll ever get from me. But since I’m doing these for myself anyway, I figured I might as well throw up a site since maybe you can get something from them.
Some of the links on this site are affiliate links. If you click one of these links and then make a purchase, Amazon or whoever will send me a small commission. Considering the amount of traffic this site generates, over the course of a year or so I might be able to buy myself a lunch.
Also, once upon a time I wrote a book. If you’d like to read it, here’s your chance.