Storytelling Secrets from Dan Harmon

Posted in: Creative, Online strategy, Storytelling, writing

On: April 14, 2014

Dan Harmon Screenwriting Content Marketing

Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon is a television producer, showrunner, actor and writer, most famous for the quirky cult hit Community on NBC.

Like many writers, Harmon is an acolyte of Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist best known for his theory of the “monomyth.” According to Campbell, myths from cultures  around the world share fundamental structures and stages. A hero is compelled to begin a journey and progress through these stages. It’s called the “Hero’s Journey.”

Dan Harmon has taken Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and reduced it down to what he feels are its core elements, or at least those most suitable for Hollywood movies or TV shows.

It looks like this:

Dan Harmon Screenwriting Story Circle Marketing

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

So the hero is taken from their comfort zone because they want something. To get it, they must cross a threshold, overcome obstacles and adversity only to return home, profoundly changed. Check out any movie and you will likely see all or most of this rhythm.

But if you’re a CEO or a marketer, you’re (probably) not Luke Skywalker and you may not have an Obi Wan by your side to guide you. You read this and say, ‘that’s all well and good, but I haven’t been yanked from comfortable obscurity and thrust into some remarkable situation.’

But then again, haven’t you?

There is drama inherent in every business. Your success is far from guaranteed, you struggle and fight every day to earn customers, roll out new products and make payroll. You fight established interests or you defend against upstarts. You battle to overcome the obstacles in your path. You solve problems for your customers and take their pain away. If you fail, it is the end – darkness, despair and roll credits.

As a businessperson you can learn a few important lessons about brand storytelling from Harmon’s story circle. Take it down to its barest elements and you can tell a compelling story about your business, one that builds your brand. Answer these fundamental questions and you find the bones of your story:

  • Where did you begin?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What obstacles are in your way?
  • What happens when you overcome this adversity?

Think about the courier company FedEx.

Today it is a multibillion-dollar behemoth. But it began in the mind of its founder Fred Smith as a business plan he wrote for a college class. Legend has it, he got a “C.” And then, when times were tough in the early days, he bet his last $5000 on a Vegas blackjack hand to keep the company alive and pay his employees. FedEx’s story has all the makings of a good screenplay.

Find the drama in your story. Consciously consider your company’s narrative arc and how that informs your company’s values. That helps fuel your brand, which in turn drives your marketing strategy. Your story isn’t an afterthought, it’s a key business differentiator.

Tell it well.




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