Learning storytelling from a Sitcom writer

What is a story? How can you tell better stories?

There is a wealth of knowledge and research into story telling, story structure and techniques for enhancing narrative. The classic text is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but this tome has been is criticised for being dense and academic. Syd Field‘s book Screenplay has influenced the writing of many recent movies, but Field has been criticised for never producing a successful script himself.

If only a successful writer would set out clearly and accessably the theory behind writing a good story.

Enter Dan Harmon the creator of the superb TV series Community. He learned his craft developing short episodes for the internet TV station Channel101. Channel101 runs a monthly screening of low budget (or zero budget), five minute episodes. They’re often over the top, vulgar, and hilarious. Check out (not at work!) the ridiculous Laser Fart, the viral sensation Chad Vader, and the teen drama pastiche The ‘Bu.

Despite the silliness of the episodes they exhibit a compelling writing style that Harmon attributes to his understanding of storytelling. Harmon wrote a series of articles to teach perspective submitters to Channel101 how to write a well structured story. The basis of these articles is a series of eight elements that should be included in every story. The eight points are:

  1. You – Who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we’d really like to know.
  2. Need - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The “you” from (1) is an alcoholic. There’s a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.
  3. Go – For (1) and (2), the “you” was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.
  4. Search – adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.
  5. Find – whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the “need” from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.
  6. Take – The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2
  7. Return – It’s not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.
  8. Change – The “you” from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom’s Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to “find some of those ants.” Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.

They sound simplistic. But in the article Harmon dissects well known movies and Channel101 episodes explaining how they conform to this structure.

Story Structure Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As a member of a public speaking organisation I frequently tell stories in front of an audience. Reading these articles has changed my approach to story telling. Rather than beginning with a blank page I plan the progression of my story using Harmon’s eight points as subheadings, and attempt to give the correct emphasis to every point.

For more insights from Dan Harmon you can check out his website or twitter. And I highly recommend his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (bad language a plenty).