Previously, in my post on Dan Harmon’s story quadrants, I discussed his 8-point circle in passing. Well, for the sake of completion, I’ll discuss his 8 points today in more detail. Harmon discusses these points himself here.
Basically, the 8 points make a kind of story structure, which Harmon believes can be found in every story. His structure is inspired by the Hero’s Journey, which comes from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (discussed in Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey).
Recap of the Quadrants
But before I get into the 8 points, a refresher on the quadrants:
- The quadrants inform your character’s internal and external journey in the story, so they inform what events will happen in the 8 points.
- In the circle, there are two halves, top & bottom and left & right.
- Top & bottom are the Familiar and Unfamiliar Worlds, respectively (external journey)
- Left & right are the Virtue and Fault, respectively (internal journey)
- Combined, your character’s journey goes like this:
- Top right quadrant: Faulty Familiar World
- Bottom right quadrant: Faulty Unfamiliar World
- Bottom left quadrant: Virtuous Unfamiliar World
- Top left quadrant: Virtuous Familiar World
And here’s an image demonstrating these quadrants plus the 8 points:
Overview & Disclaimer
So now, I’ll break down what each point means, approximately when they should happen, mirroring, and also some equivalents that writers may be more familiar with, namely Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book Save the Cat, which is a structure I also use (but I modified it somewhat to my liking).
A note about timing: I’ll be giving some estimations for when these points typically happen, but of course they aren’t set in stone. Adapt the structure to your story; don’t adapt your story to the structure. The quadrants and circle are meant to serve as some guidance for if you’re stuck on your manuscript or you feel like something is missing or you just want a bare bones skeleton to keep in mind while planning your story.
I will be using the first book of Harry Potter as an example, because it’s pretty well-known (these examples will be in gray boxes). Also, because the quadrants are important too, here’s what I think they are for this book (although, I’m not quite sure about them):
- Familiar World: muggle world/non-magical world
- Unfamiliar World: Hogwarts/magical world
- Fault: ignorance
- Virtue: knowledge
- Journey: ignorant in muggle world -> ignorant at Hogwarts -> knowledgeable at Hogwarts -> knowledgeable in muggle world.
(1) YOU: “Before” Snapshot
IN A NUTSHELL: A character is in a zone of comfort.
This is the beginning of the story (not including the prologue, which often cuts ahead or shows a glimpse of the unfamiliar world). At this point, the protagonist and many of the major characters are introduced. We see the protagonist in their ordinary and familiar world. This is their comfort zone. Even if it’s not a fantastic world, at least it’s familiar and they know how to navigate it. This gives the reader a baseline, something to compare to when the protagonist later enters the unfamiliar world.
Blake Synder calls this the Opening Image, but in his book, he describes it as a “before” snapshot (the “after” snapshot would be at the end of the story, when we see how much the protagonist has changed). I feel like “Before” Snapshot encapsulates the idea of this point better than Opening Image, so I use that terminology instead.
EXAMPLE: In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling started off by showing Harry Potter living in the muggle world with his aunt and uncle. If she started with the scene where Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard or even later when he's at Hogwarts, the story wouldn't have been as effective because the readers wouldn't have anything to compare this new, magical world to, and readers might not have felt as excited if they hadn't seen Harry's drab and awful life before Hogwarts.
A NOTE ABOUT CHAPTER 1: Although it's called Ch. 1, its function is a lot more like a prologue, meaning that it gives us a hint of the magic and story to come. Sci fi & fantasy authors often include this kind of opening scene before showing the protagonist's familiar world, as if to say, "Just hold on, the magic/dragon/cyborg/etc is coming soon." (In Ch. 1, Dumbledore talks to McGonagall about Voldemort killing Harry's parents and Hagrid leaves Harry on the Dursley's doorstep.)
(2) NEED: Inciting Incident
IN A NUTSHELL: But the character wants something.
Despite the protagonist being in a zone of comfort, they’re not happy. They want something, but they’re unlikely to actually go after it until, usually, some sort of external event prompts them to. This is also known as the Call to Adventure, the Catalyst, or the Inciting Incident. It’s a life-changing event that breaks the protagonist out of their routine, and causes their life to go in a different, unplanned direction.
Sometimes, the protagonist refuses this call at first, or has an internal debate about it. They might meet a mentor who prompts them to accept the call. Basically, if this incident never happened, the rest of the story would never happen, and the protagonist would have continued life in their familiar world.
The Inciting Incident tends to happen at about 10% of the book.
EXAMPLE: We see that Harry is not happy all throughout his introduction, so this point kind of blends with (1) YOU. Then, Hagrid comes and tells him he's a wizard, which is the Inciting Incident. If this never happened, Harry would have grown up as a muggle with the Dursleys, probably.
(3) GO: Door to the New World
IN A NUTSHELL: The character enters an unfamiliar situation.
At about 25% of the book, the protagonist finally enters the unfamiliar world. This is what your story is actually about. As in, if you pitched your story to someone, you’d probably tell them about this part. Dan Harmon says, “What’s your story about? If it’s about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she’s gonna start.”
This whole quadrant (the Faulty Unfamiliar World) is about what Blake Synder calls the promise of the premise (Fun & Games), and the point (3) GO is the entrance into that promise–when the promise starts being fulfilled. The promise of the premise is basically what Harmon said: it’s what your story is about.
EXAMPLE: This is when Harry goes shopping for magic supplies for school, and later, when he actually gets on the train and goes to Hogwarts. The premise for Harry Potter is that he's a wizard--it's what the story is about--so at this point we see the beginning of magic and wizardry. Also, remember what I said about prologues showing us a hint of the unfamiliar world? Well, it's all to tide the reader over until this moment.
(4) SEARCH: Exploring the New World
IN A NUTSHELL: The character adapts to the new situation.
From about 25-50% of the book, the protagonist explores the unfamiliar world. This point more so encapsulates the whole quadrant instead of one specific scene, like the other points. As I said in (3) GO, this whole quadrant (the Faulty Unfamiliar World) is about what Blake Synder calls the promise of the premise (Fun & Games), which is basically what your story is about.
And he calls this Fun & Games because these scenes tend to be the lighter ones with lower stakes, mainly dedicated to the protagonist trying to understand and adapt to this new world. Because of this, these scenes also tend not to be directly related to the main conflict. It might instead center around, or at least introduce, a subplot. The character also meets some new characters that epitomize this new world, meaning that they are at home in this world and it’s their familiar world. They could be friends, allies, enemies, mentors, etc.
Dan Harmon prefers to call this part the Road of Trials, which is from Joseph Campbell. This label describes darker fiction, like the Hunger Games, better than Snyder’s Fun & Games label, but they both have a similar idea: the character starts adapting to the unfamiliar world. Internally, the character starts to realize they have to shed their baggage from their familiar world because there’s no place in this new world for all that old junk. The whole purpose of this quadrant is for its Road of Trials to prepare the protagonist to Meet the Goddess in the next point (5) FIND.
EXAMPLE: This is when Harry gets sorted into Hogwarts, goes to his classes, hangs out with Ron & Hermione, butts heads with Malfoy and Snape, etc. Starting from when he's on the train to Hogwarts, which is a part of (3) GO, he meets a lot of new characters, many who are very familiar with this magical world, like Ron and all his professors.
(5) FIND: Some Insight into the New World
IN A NUTSHELL: The character finds what they wanted (but it may not be what they expected).
At about 50% of the book, the protagonist finds what they wanted, which was put forth in (2) NEED. Yay? Perhaps not. Often there’s more to it than they expected–something darker, something not quite right. Discovering this leads them to start taking action, instead of mostly reacting to what was thrown at them, as in the 1st half of the book.
This moment is also known as the Midpoint. Harmon uses Meeting with the Goddess, which is Campbell’s terminology. This could be a good or bad moment, often both. Sometimes this moment is an actual meeting with a powerful, mysterious female figure.
It’s a special, vulnerable moment where the character has a major revelation about this new world and about themselves (and their flaws). Like (3) GO, it’s a door, a point of no return. The character has to make an important choice here–the choice to move on, to change, to take action.
Because the character has to choose to keep going, it can be tempting to stay here and forget about the new revelations. Similar to the Inciting Incident in (2) NEED, the protagonist may debate continuing the adventure for a moment, but eventually they have to go, otherwise the story would stop here. The main difference between (2) NEED and this point (5) FIND is that this choice must be voluntary. In (2) NEED, often the protagonist is a little forced into going on the adventure by some sort of mentor, external event, etc. That shouldn’t be the case here.
EXAMPLE: This is probably when Harry first sees the three-headed dog guarding the trapdoor in the forbidden 3rd floor corridor when sneaking back to his room after Malfoy challenged him to a duel but never showed up. Well, when I opened the book to the halfway point, this scene was there :) but it makes sense too.
The three-headed dog starts a mystery: why is that dog there and what is it guarding? When Harry sees the dog, he could have chosen to forget about it and let it slide. But instead, it piques his curiosity. He can't just continue his life as if nothing happened now that he has this new insight into this unfamiliar, magical world.
(6) TAKE: The Darkest Moment
IN A NUTSHELL: The character pays the price for finding and taking what they wanted.
This whole quadrant (50-75% of the book), the Virtuous Unfamiliar World, is another Road of Trials. The difference is that this Road of Trials prepares the protagonist for the climax–the final confrontation–whereas the Road of Trials in the previous quadrant, the Faulty Unfamiliar World, prepared the protagonist to Meet the Goddess in (5) FIND.
At about 62% of the book, the protagonist has their lowest moment–the dark moment, also called the dark night of the soul. Why? Because they found what they wanted, and took it. Basically what this means is that, at (5) FIND, they gained some new insight into the unfamiliar world and themselves, causing them to take action. These actions have consequences, which happen in (6) TAKE.
Snyder calls this Break into Act 3. Harmon calls this Meet Your Maker because, often, the protagonist meets (perhaps even face to face) the one who created them, who shaped them, who made them what they are. And this meeting is not usually a great moment. Death, figurative and/or literal, happens here. The protagonist loses something that was important to them. They must overcome this loss and find renewed courage to keep going and defeat the antagonist. The thing that makes this loss hit hard is the fact that it’s usually a result of their own failed plans and actions.
Overcoming this loss is what leads to apotheosis, which means becoming a god. Harmon says,
When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.
Depending on the scope of your story, a “living God” might be a guy that can finish changing a tire in the rain. Or, in the case of Die Hard, it might be a guy that can appear on the roof, dispatch terrorists with ease and herd 50 hostages to safety while dodging gunfire from an FBI helicopter.
EXAMPLE: This is when Harry goes into the enchanted forest and is attacked by Voldemort who was drinking that unicorn's blood. The unicorn is the literal death, and you could say the figurative death is Harry's ignorance. Now he knows about Voldemort, the man who made Harry who he is: Voldemort is the one killed Harry's parents, causing him to grow up with the Dursleys, and the one who gave him that scar and his destiny to be Voldemort's downfall. In Harry's case, becoming a "living god" means becoming someone who can take down Voldemort.
(7) RETURN: Back to the Familiar World
IN A NUTSHELL: The character returns to their familiar world.
At around 75% of the book, the protagonist returns to their familiar world in some way. It could be that they literally travel back to a place there were at in the beginning, or it could just be mentally, where they return to an adapted version of their old worldview and values. After all they’ve been through, they can’t view things completely the same as they did at the start, but it could be that something that was important to them at the beginning gains renewed importance.
In Harmon’s TV episodes, this usually means that the protagonists just return to how things were before. For example, in Rick & Morty, the status quo is Rick and Morty at home, not being on any sort of adventure, so that’s their familiar world. Then they go on some sort of adventure and return home. In Community, the status quo is the study group and the relationships they have with each other. No matter what happens during the episode, they usually go back to being in the study group with similar sorts of relationships at the end.
Pretty much anything that’s episodic (self-contained little stories that don’t really affect the next bits of story) does that too. They just return to the status quo in each episode. The downside to this is that, even though we see the character change a little, that change doesn’t tend to carry over into the next episode so it can actually feel like there’s no character growth.
So in many books, movies, and shows that do feature character growth or any kind of change at the end that carries over to the other books/movies/whatever, I find that this moment is more so about stability and clarity than actually returning to how things were before. The protagonist could finally feel like, after fumbling about in the unfamiliar world, they understand what this world is about, and it’s become familiar to them. This familiarity, coupled with their newfound virtue (whatever that may be), is what enables them to see what they have to do to defeat the antagonist. So the protagonist makes a final plan and prepares for the final confrontation.
Basically I think of this as the “I know what I must do now” moment, an aha! moment, if you will.
EXAMPLE: This is when Harry, Ron and Hermione go to the forbidden 3rd floor corridor, get past the guard dog and all that jazz. So while Harry doesn't yet return to what I said his familiar world is (the muggle world), here he gains a sense of stability and clarity: he has to get the stone before Voldemort.
(8) CHANGE: Master of Both Worlds
IN A NUTSHELL: The character is now capable of change.
At some point during the third quadrant, Virtuous Familiar World, the climax occurs. This is the final battle and confrontation, where the protagonist defeats the antagonist (or sometimes not). It could be a half-win, where they managed to save someone or escape but the antagonist also escaped.
Harmon calls the protagonist at this point a Master of Both Worlds because, after going through all that stuff, not only have they changed, they are now capable of causing change–they are godlike. Harmon says,
They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.
One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his shit together.
That is a great segue to mirroring, the next topic.
EXAMPLE: This is when Harry looks in the Mirror of Erised and sees the sorcerer's stone in his pocket (and it's actually there). He defeats Quirrell/Voldemort (but this is more so a half-win, since Voldemort isn't completely defeated yet). And in the aftermath, he attends the end-of-year banquet and returns home to the Dursleys. So at this point Harry does return to what I said his familiar world is (the muggle world), but it happens at the end.
Mirroring is one of the things I like the most about this structure. It means that all the points directly across from each other on the circle are related to each other in some way. So, when planning your story, if you have some points down, but no ideas for the others, try looking at the point across from it for inspiration. Before I get into how Harmon says the points mirror each other, here’s that circle again, so you can see which points are across from which more easily:
(1) YOU and (5) FIND
These points mirror each other because they are both like a sort of mother: a comfortable place where you may want to stay forever, but at some point you have to leave the nest. Harmon says that (1) YOU is like being in the arms of a dysfunctional mother because the protagonist’s starting place is so full of flaws and unhappiness. But it’s comfortable there. The protagonist would stay there if it weren’t for the Inciting Incident that happens in (2) NEED.
At (5) FIND, the protagonist enters the arms of a new mother. She is the gatekeeper of the Virtuous Unfamiliar World. She tests those seeking entry by showing them a bit of the world beyond the gate. Those who are too weak stay here with her forever, safe in her arms. Those who are strong break free from her grasp, into the Virtuous Unfamiliar World.
(1) and (5) are both passive, vulnerable moments. So if you have trouble with these points, for (1), think about what your protagonist’s comfort zone is, where they would be fine with staying forever, until the Inciting Incident happens later. For (5), think about what could scare them from going further into the Unfamiliar World, what new knowledge they gain that makes them reconsider moving forward. This is what the gatekeeper mother would show them.
(2) NEED and (6) TAKE
These points are both active moments. Harmon says that if (1)/(5) are like the mother, then (2)/(6) are like the father. (2) NEED is the Call to Adventure–the Inciting Incident–which prompts the protagonist to leave their dysfunctional mother shown in (1) YOU. The NEED just tends to be whatever the protagonist’s goal is at the start.
(6) TAKE is where the protagonist confronts their limitations and mortality to become godlike, capable of enacting change. This is the result of leaving the gatekeeper mother at (5) FIND. This is what she was trying to keep the protagonist safe from.
TAKE is basically showing the darkest side of their NEED, so if you have trouble coming up with this dark moment, think about what awful thing could be tied to the NEED. For example, if Harry Potter’s NEED was to be something more–someone special who doesn’t just suffer at the hands of the Dursley’s–what’s the dark side of that? Voldemort. The magic that empowers him and the scar that makes him special are intertwined with Voldemort.
(3) GO and (7) RETURN
These points involve crossing thresholds. (3) GO is going from the protagonist’s ordinary world to a new one (order to chaos) and (7) is going from the new world back to the ordinary one (chaos to order). So if you have trouble with these points, try rethinking your quadrants, or think about what’s comfortable to your protagonist (this will be their Familiar World) and what’s uncomfortable to them (this will be their Unfamiliar World). For (7) RETURN, you at least want them to experience some sense of stability and clarity, even if they don’t actually return to the familiar world.
(4) SEARCH and (8) CHANGE
I touched on this one in the quote from Harmon above, where he said, “One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior [at (8) CHANGE] is because of what happened down below [at (4) SEARCH].”
So, something that happened in (4) SEARCH often helps the protagonist to defeat the antagonist (8) CHANGE. It could be an object someone gave them in (4), or a new character they met in (4) who swoops in unexpectedly to help, or some advice they got in (4), etc. The point is that the reason why they have become capable of change is because of all the stuff they went through earlier.
Someone/thing helping unexpectedly would be considered Deus Ex Machina (god from the machine, a common trope in Greek & Roman plays where a god comes out of nowhere and saves the day) if you didn’t introduce that character, object, etc before the climax. So if you know what you want your climax to be, and you have certain people or things that will help the protagonist, you must introduce them earlier and (4) SEARCH is a good place to do that.
Conversely, if you know what you want to happen in (4) SEARCH, but don’t know what your climax will be, think about all the people and objects you introduced and brainstorm how they could help the protagonist later on with their unique skills, mindset, characteristics, etc.
Also, you’ll want to introduce your antagonist in some capacity early on too, even if it’s just a hint. Imagine how weird it would be if Harry had never seen or met Professor Quirrell until the scene where they’re in the forbidden corridor trying to get the sorcerer’s stone. Pretty weird and confusing, right? J.K. Rowling also took care to introduce Voldemort early on in chapter 1 (which I consider similar to a prologue), so even though Harry doesn’t find out about him until much later, at least the readers already knew.
And that’s it! 🙂