Dan Harmon's Story Circle

I’m a huge fan of Rick and Morty – the popular animated show about the brilliant and morally questionable scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson Morty Smith, who go on interdimensional adventures. You may be wondering what this cartoon has to do with business and customer journey mapping.

I recently came across The Story Circle, a storytelling framework from the show’s creator Dan Harmon. The Story Circle is the guiding framework Harmon and his writing team use to write Rick and Morty episodes.

If this was the storytelling framework that helped create one of my favorite TV shows, I wanted to explore if it can be applied to messaging and positioning, to make the customer the center of the story, not the company or product features. 

The Story Circle (Embryo) 

Dan Harmon explains The Story Circle

The Story Circle is an 8 step story process that guides the hero’s journey.

  1. You – a character/protagonist/hero you can identify with in a state of comfort
  2. Need – The hero has a need/wish/incompletion 
  3. Go – The hero crosses a threshold where the story changes direction
  4. Search – The hero goes on the Road of Trials – searching for something
  5. Find – The hero finds what they are looking for
  6. Take – The hero takes it
  7. Return The hero returns to where it all began
  8. Change The hero is forever changed by the journey
Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Here’s an example from Rick and Morty as told by Dan Harmon:

  1. You – Morty lives in comfort knowing Rick is a brilliant scientist
  2. Need – He finds out Rick is an arms dealer which is an ethical dilemma for Morty
  3. Go – Morty crosses the threshold and tries to undo the ethical damage from Rick
  4. Search – Morty steals Rick’s ship
  5. Find – He kills an assassin and saves Fart (the victim’s name – no really)
  6. Take – The act of saving the victim’s life will cost a lot of other people their lives
  7. Return – Morty crosses the return threshold getting Fart to his portal. Morty realizes that this will risk all carbon based life
  8. Change – Morty decides to kill Fart to save carbon based life 

How can we apply this to business? Can we use this framework to make the customer the center of the story? Let’s take the example of WealthSimple (no affiliation):

  1. You – Jane is saving money but she wants to grow her wealth
  2. Need – She doesn’t want her hard earned money to lose value and sit idle in her account
  3. Go – Jane starts searching for investment opportunities and platforms 
  4. Search – She explores different options but finds them overwhelming, hard to use and expensive
  5. Find – Jane comes across WealthSimple
  6. Take – She signs up through a referral and starts building her investment account
  7. Return – Jane grows her savings and her wealth
  8. Change – Jane is now able to automate her investments through the app and feels confident that she is securing her financial future.

Jane is the center of the story – not the product features, not what the company thinks is important, not the bells and whistles, but the customer. The story circle framework can guide messaging and positioning across all channels to be centered around the customer, shifting the focus from features to benefits. Yes products and features can be mentioned, but ultimately you need to answer the question: How does your product/service make the customer’s life better?  

Using this framework, how would you capture your customer’s story?