Features and Columns · TV

The Narrative Theory Behind the Metatextual Madness of “Never Ricking Morty”

The latest episode of ‘Rick and Morty’ was a showcase for Dan Harmon’s story circle. Here’s a video essay to get you up to speed.
Rick Morty
By  · Published on May 7th, 2020

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Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of Rick and Mortythere’s still a good chance that you’ve heard of showrunner Dan Harmon‘s story circle.

Harmon’s analytical theory about the shape of good stories is essentially a break down of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” Harmon’s story structure, dubbed “the story embryo,” follows eight steps: (1) a character is in a comfort zone; (2) but they want something; (3) so they enter an unfamiliar situation; (4) and adapt to it; (5) getting what they wanted; (6) only to pay a heavy price; (7) and they return to their comfort zone; (8) having changed.

Given Harmon’s deep-understanding/obsession with narrative formula and Rick and Morty‘s proclivity for getting meta, it was only a matter of time before Harmon’s structure became the subject of an episode.”Never Ricking Morty” sees our titular heroes aboard a Snowpiercer-like train that traps the pair in a surreal cycle of anthological tangents and hackneyed narrative formulas. Physically, the train is itself is a mirror image of Harmon’s story circle (or, as Rick puts it; “of course this thing is just a fucking circle, you’d think it was so goddamn complicated”). The episode is a meta-textual smorgasbord and a characteristically cynical commentary on the pressures the modern media landscape exerts on showrunners. Especially showrunners who’ve struck a massive 70-episode renewal deal and maybe feeling a little anxious about how to fill all that quantity with quality.

Given the bewildered online reactions after the “Never Ricking Morty”‘s premiere, a refresher on Harmon’s narrative theory may be in order. Or hey, maybe you’re entirely new to all this and you’re wondering where you can learn more about this “story circle” business. The following video essay, “Dan Harmon’s Story Circle: 8 Proven Steps to Better Stories” offers a helpful breakdown of Harmon’s narrative theory using The Dark Knight as an example that follows the circle’s eight steps.

You can watch “Dan Harmon Story Circle: 8 Proven Steps to Better Stories” here:

Who made this?

“Dan Harmon Story Circle: 8 Proven Steps to Better Stories” was created by StudioBinder, the production management software creator that also happens to produce video essays. You can check out their YouTube account here, for their back catalog of essays, which tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging, to pitches, to directorial techniques.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).