Understanding Dan Harmon's Story Circle Through the Lens of 'The Dark Knight'

Even an ostensibly complex story like "The Dark Knight" follows the simple curve of the Story Circle.

Story structure can be a difficult beast to tame, namely because it's hard to know which structure is "best." In one ear, screenwriting gurus are telling you to follow one of a million storytelling formulas and in the other ear, naysayers are telling you to ditch formulas all together and ride your story bareback through the wilderness of unblemished narrative freedom.

The short answer: do whatever you want. Personally, I like a story structure that is easy for me to navigate so I don't get lost when adding all of the necessary elements and one that I've come across that has sated my craving for simplicity is Dan Harmon's Story Circle, which is basically a simplified version of Joseph Campbell's monomyth.

How simple is it? Well, in this video, StudioBinder broke down Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to reveal how a seemingly complex plot can actually adhere to the "rules" of Harmon's uncomplicated 8-step story structure template. Check it out below:

The Story Circle is really easy to follow. Here's how Harmon himself breaks it down in his 8 steps:

  • 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.

Boom—or as Harmon puts it, "super easy shit." So many of our favorite films follow this kind of structure, from The Matrix to Star Wars, and yes, even the dense, complicated, and nutrition-rich plot of The Dark Knight. And no, you don't have to follow a structure, template, or formula to write a great story, but if your work would benefit from having one, then you might want to give the Story Circle a try.

Credit: StudioBinder

If you want to give the Story Circle a try with your own screenplay, StudioBinder is giving away some free resources that will help you map out your stories according to its template. It includes a printable Story Circle worksheet, an online workbook, and an infographic that breaks down The Dark Knight according to each of the 8 steps. You can download it here at the bottom of the page; all you need is your email address. Now, let's all say it together: Thanks for all the free stuff, StudioBinder!     

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Your Comment


Some pretty useful views on writing a story.
Reminds me of how Aristotle quoted way back in his writings, "Pity - Fear - Catharsis" function as a standard formula for writing a story.

April 21, 2018 at 1:40PM, Edited April 21, 1:40PM

Tanay Chaudhari
Film Appreciation, Reviewing, Screenwriting (in that order)

You have totally misunderstood (or are misinterpreting) Dark Knight. You are bending the real story to fit into your formula, which is a great mistake. The external need of Bruce Wayne is to fight the criminals in general, and to fight Joker in particular (Your internal motivation observation is correct: he wants to hang up the cape). From there on, your analysis crumbles. I highly recommend you read William C. Martell's piece on action films: http://www.scriptsecrets.net/articles/diehard.htm

April 21, 2018 at 6:00PM, Edited April 21, 6:00PM

Gurkan Demirci

I think that scheme is too easy and therefore - wrong. Don't make Dark Knight so simple.

April 22, 2018 at 5:08AM


I wouldn't call this an oversimplification as much as a very high level deconstruction of a film that is teeming with nuance. Keep in mind that this wheel is designed to keep a writer on track, not to help them make the story itself.
In that regard, I don't doubt that some people could find it useful (though It's clearly geared toward beginners who may not have developed their own writing technique). I can appreciate something this high level / simple because it doesn't try to hold your hand through a formula like the Blake Snyder chart. It's a series of landmarks, not a trail of breadcrumbs.

April 23, 2018 at 12:13PM

James Couche
Independent Filmmaker