If you’re a fan of Rick and Morty or Community, then you’ve probably heard of Dan Harmon, the creator of both shows.
Harmon is a seasoned industry veteran and, over the course of years of work, he’s come up with his very own approach to story structure.
Let’s take a look at his eight-step approach to telling great stories.
Step 1: Zone of Comfort.
Start with your protagonist — or protagonists.
The pilot of Rick and Morty, for example, starts with Morty sleeping in his bed before Rick barges in drunk and drags him out of bed for an adventure. We get a sense of both the character’s common world: Morty as the regular kid, and Rick as the messy drunk who often brings chaos to Morty’s life.
Step 2: The Desire.
The desire is what kicks off the plot. The protagonist’s life was in order until something happens that generates a need or a desire in the character
In Rick and Morty, we usually get the zone of comfort and the desire established right before the title sequence plays.
For example, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” (Season 2, Episode 6) starts with Rick, Morty, and Summer on their way to get ice cream before they notice that the car’s battery is dead, which sets up Rick’s desire to fix the battery.
Step 3: Crossing the Threshold.
The Desire leads the protagonist to cross a threshold, stepping into an unknown situation; into the world of challenges. That crossing can be figurative or literal. Both joining a cooking class and entering a dark forest can be set up as the crossing of a threshold. What matters is not how fantastic the new situation is, but how unfamiliar it is to your protagonist.
Again using “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” as an example, the threshold is crossed when Rick and Morty enter the car’s battery, which contains an entire universe. Rick is familiar with this universe, but Morty — the audience surrogate — is not. And like us, he has many questions.
Step 4: Adapt.
Now in a new world, the protagonists must adapt to their new situation as they struggle to reach their goal. This stage can be filled with anything from action sequences to training montages. It will prepare the protagonist and the audience for what’s ahead.
At this point, the character’s goal may change or become more concrete as they learn more about the problem.
In the case of Rick and Morty, we spend step 4 learning more about the rules of the universe inside the battery and what made it stop working. The episode’s main antagonist, Zeep Xanflorp, is introduced here; as is the idea that there are even more universes contained inside this one.
When they identify Zeep as the one causing the battery problems, Rick’s goal becomes clear: convince Zeep to stop his experiments.
Step 5: Finding What Was Desired.
At step 5 the character finds what they were looking for in step 4. But they find it right as they reach the depth of the underworld, where they are knee deep into trouble. To make things worse, they don’t always like what they find.
Rick wanted to change Zeep’s mind in episode 206, and he did. He made Zeep realize that his entire universe had been created by Rick to serve as a battery. This leads not to the battery being fixed, but to Zeep attacking Rick, and to the two being left stranded in a primitive universe.
Step 6: Paying the Price.
This comes as a direct consequence of the previous step. The character got what they wanted; now they must pay the price.
Here is where we have the war between Rick and Zeep in episode 206, which was entirely caused by Rick’s efforts in step 4. The duel between the two has a brief break when they work together to escape the primitive universe, but it resumes when the two must race one another on their way back to Zeep’s ship.
Step 7: Crossing the Return Threshold.
This is the opposite of step 3. The protagonist that left to fulfill his desire must now return to their familiar world, with their desire now fulfilled. It’s a return to their zone of comfort.
This is where Rick and Morty leave the car battery, returning to the ship.
Step 8: Character Has Changed.
Here we see the results of the adventure. Back in the ship, Rick and Morty find the battery now working. As it usually goes with this show, Rick hasn’t changed much by the end of the adventure, while Morty has added another trauma notch to his belt of existential dread.
These are Dan Harmon’s eight story steps, which are often called the Story Cycle or the Story Embryo. And while many questions can be raised as to why these work, or even if they work at all, it’s hard to argue with the success Harmon has found in his writing while following this structure.