Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has been admittedly obsessed with story structure for years. Out of that obsession came his Story Circle, which is basically a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the archetypical hero’s journey. Here’s what he says, and here’s a youtube video that does a bang-up job of explaining it. Since Rick and Morty is my new obsession, I thought I’d see if I could take Harmon’s Story Circle and apply it to an episode of Rick and Morty. I chose Pickle Rick (episode 3, season 3) because not only is it one of my favorites but it was really well written by Jessica Gao.
First, the Story Circle. I’m not going to break it down to its bits and pieces because Harmon and Will Schoder do it way better than I could ever (see the above links). But, in a nutshell, here it is:
Now I’ll run through Rick and Morty and show you how you can apply those 8 items to something even as short as 22 minutes.
First, take a character and show him in his comfort zone, his normal, everyday life. In Pickle Rick we start out with the super normal activity of Morty brushing his hair. We follow him into Rick’s garage where Rick reveals that he’s turned himself into a pickle. While this may seem out of the ordinary, for Rick and Morty, this is the ordinary.
The character wants something. In this case, it’s pickle serum (though Rick does not admit this, and in fact lies about it). His daughter Beth snips the cord and tosses the syringe into her purse before they leave for family therapy (minus Rick).
And it’s interesting to note here that Beth insists that “No one needs anything.” This plays into her storyline’s circle.
This is the step in which the character enters an unfamiliar situation. Rick is flushed into the sewer, while Beth is scrutinized by the therapist.
This is the “road of trails” step during which the character adapts to the unfamiliar situation. Pickle Rick bites himself and with the pickle juice, lures a cockroach close enough to overpower it and take over its body. Beth, on the other hand, is still fighting back against the therapist but admits that she admires her father for not needing anything from anyone.
In this step, the character gets what they wanted. Rick gets a body made of rat pieces and is able to get out of the sewer. I think this is the “Yes/But” step. YES, Rick gets what he wanted (out of the sewer), BUT he ends up in a more dangerous situation when he emerges into the headquarters of some kind of Russian mob. Meanwhile Beth is adapting to the therapy. She and the kids admit their “I Statements” to one another. (“I am afraid my kids will get expelled).
The character pays a heavy price for getting what he wanted. Rick is forced to fight a nemesis with as much skill (if not brains) as he, and is hurt really badly in the process. When he and Jaguar join forces, Rick must confront the fact that he might lose Beth if he doesn’t change. Beth, too, begins to recognize the problems in her relationship with her Rick.
This is the step in which our hero returns to their everyday world, to where they started. Rick joins the family at therapy, half-dead, still a pickle. He’s forced to admit to Beth that he lied to get out of going to therapy. In a brilliant monologue, the therapist delivers her final report on the state of the dysfunction inherent in their family.
The characters have returned to their world having changed. Rick and Beth admit that they do in fact need something from each other, and Rick apologizes for lying. Beth gives him the pickle serum so he can go back to being a human (thus literally completing the circle). Even though they make amends and seem to have grown as a result of the therapy session (and Jaguar’s admonition of Rick’s relationship with Beth), they still make fun of the therapist and pretend it was useless.
So, yes, even in the condensed time of a television show, Harmon’s Story Circle works—or, really, it’s the other way around: because the episode follows so closely the Story Circle, the episode works.
Every summer Shakespeare in the Park comes through Missoula, but I prefer to see it an hour east in Seeley Lake because there are less people and the setting is just extraordinary. This year’s production was Macbeth, a play I’ve seen many times. In fact, I think it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen the most. It’s not my favorite by any means but I think people like to perform it because it’s short and action-packed and not that hard to follow.
Throughout the play a crow, an ominous portent if there ever was one, cawed in the trees, the wildfire smoke hazed the mountains, and the players dressed in post-apocalyptic garb. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were amazing. They exhibited a chemistry I don’t remember seeing in other productions. They kissed and touched and acted like a married couple. It showed a level of intimacy I hadn’t seen before and certainly added a new dimension to the play. When a couple so clearly love each other, what they do is magnified to a new level of dastardliness. It also makes the sundering of their relationship all the more tragic.
In the dramaturgical included in the program, Gretchen E. Minton, Ph.D. states that “everything seems to happen in an instant, without any chance for the characters to reflect upon the consequences of their decisions.” She says that, after the fatal act, Macbeth pushes onward, never looking back. I disagree. I believe he does look back and reflect upon his choices, he just decides to push onward rather than, like Hamlet, pause to contemplate if it was the right choice. On the other hand, Hamlet didn’t have a Lady Macbeth…
I don’t have a radio in my car so I listen to a lot of books-on-tape and podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is This American Life. A few weeks ago they broadcast a podcast called The Magic Show all about–no surprise here–magic. If you’re not familiar with This American Life, each week they choose a theme and tell stories based on that theme. The show is divided into acts, sometimes two, sometimes three or more. The one I want to talk about is the first act of this show in which Ira Glass interviews Teller of Penn and Teller about the evolution of a magic trick.
I haven’t been writing. In fact, I’ve barely written more than blog posts since last November. It doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing…it just means I’m taking a hiatus to refill the coffers, to explore other aspects of writing and creativity (ie: reading lots of writing books, gaining life experience, learning new things). And one thing that strikes me over and over is how alike the creative arts are. By this I mean everything and anything even slightly creative: art, fashion, acting, radio shows, jokes, engineering, magic, and many many more things. It always shocks me how much the creative process is the same across mediums, across disciplines.
Ira Glass wanted to deconstruct a magic trick from the ground up and Teller was one of the few magicians willing, because, he says, “If you understand the good magic trick, and I mean really understand it right down to the mechanics at the core of its psychology, the magic trick gets better, not worse.” As writers we spend decades, lifetimes really, understanding the mechanics of storytelling, and in that way (if we keep at it) we become better and better writers.
As it’s told, Teller found an old magic book by a magician from the 1920’s and became obsessed with this one trick that we’ll call the Ball and String Trick. He started out simply learning the trick, performing it over and over at his house, learning how to make the ball interact with the string. He would practice this trick everyday, taking it on vacation and even videotaping himself doing it to see how it would look to others. This is the artist at work in the earliest stages of his craft–the writer when he’s taking his first steps into writerdom. It’s those stories with predictable endings, with stale characters, with silly grammar mistakes.
Ira Glass and his co-worker David Kestenbaum explain that while Teller performs this most basic of tricks, they can see and hear the string (something the audience would not be able to do), and yet it’s still beautiful, the interaction of ball and string and magician. Much the same way a writer can see and appreciate the effortless play on words, the subtle changes in character, the ebb and flow of the plot, Glass and Kestenbaum, both former boy magicians themselves, can see the beauty in a trick even when they know how it’s done. But keep this in mind because it comes into play later.
The podcast goes onto explain how Teller perfects his trick, how he makes it his own, how he deconstructs it to get at its very essence. By so doing he’s able to rebuild it into something uniquely his own. Seeing the trick for what it is enables him to change it, to perfect it, to craft it in such a way that it becomes uniquely Teller-esque. This is the writer plotting, coming up with ideas, distilling the essence of the story in order to shape it into something she wants to say. This is the synopsis, the elevator pitch.
Once he’s done that, Teller begins to incorporate the trick into a routine. As Glass puts it, “This involved a tremendous amount of invention, making up all kinds of new moves on his own for the [Ball and String].” Teller came up with set pieces and experimented with the type of ball he used, which is the writer writing, putting his characters into a scene, manipulating points of view.
Here I want to pause to point out a particular statement Teller makes when asked why he never showed the work-in-progress to his partner Penn Jillette: “You can’t look at a half-finished piece of magic and know whether it’s good or not. It has to be perfect before you can evaluate whether it’s good.” In the writing world, I’ve heard both sides of this coin. I’ve heard it’s better to show unfinished work to others and I’ve heard it’s best to keep it to yourself until you have a relatively cohesive draft. I’m still working out for myself what is better but the more I write and the more I share, the more I think I land on Teller’s side. If I show a work too soon, my writers’ group can warp my vision too drastically, and while they could still do that with a critique of the cohesive draft, it’s much easier for me to stand by my work when I know where it’s going (gone?).
Another interesting tidbit about Penn and Teller I learned is that Penn and Teller, while long-time partners, aren’t exactly friends. Theirs is strictly a working relationship (a 40-year working relationship no less). That in itself is a lesson but what really stood out for me was what Penn ultimately thinks of Teller’s new trick. He says it’s a beautiful trick, a lovely, original trick…but a trick he doesn’t like. Penn, however, says Hey, I may not like this trick but so what? I don’t have to like everything in the show. But Teller isn’t having any of that. To him, that’s settling, and they didn’t become Penn and Teller by settling.
So Teller goes back to the drawing board. He says:
” If you put the same coin in your hand, close your hand, and even do just this– even just say, take out a match, light the match, pass it around your hand, and act with a sudden jolt, as though something has happened inside your hand where the coin melted away, and you’ve been burnt, and you open your hand and there’s no coin now– that level of acting, that level of causality that suggests that somehow the fire of a match could make a coin melt away, suddenly adds a dimension to it that I think is pretty crucial.”
In other words, a good magician must give the trick a story, an emotion, a meaning. A writer makes a story work when he gives it meaning, when he invokes an emotion in the readers by imbuing his characters with emotion and giving their lives meaning. But even after the trick is given meaning and a story, Penn still doesn’t like it. In fact, he dislikes it even more. So the partners sit down and work together to come up with something they can agree on. This is the writer working with her beta readers to make her story something better. But it’s also the critique group understanding they don’t have to like everything their peer writes, but if they feel it can be better, they brainstorm.
So Penn and Teller think outside the box and come to the conclusion that they should show the audience the previously-invisible string that makes the ball move. This is the writer of stories in which you can see the ending coming a million miles away and yet, once it’s done, you sit back and smile (see Joe Hill’s early short stories). It’s the writer who leads you one way (shows you the string) then suddenly yanks it back, leaving you satisfied despite the obviousness of it all. It’s the ‘wait, I saw the string. I saw it. But…” feeling.
Overall, it took 18 months from the time Teller came upon the trick until it wound up in their show, and even then it changed slightly over the years. As writers we don’t have the ability to change something once it’s published but we do have the ability to craft our stories for as much time as it takes to perfect them (within reason, of course). I take heart at pronouncements like these because sometimes when I’m working on a book I feel like it’s taking forever, which is why when I write a short story, I usually only make a single pass over it before sending it out. I like the rapid fire dispatch of shorts versus the drawn-out perfection of a novel.
I’ve been privileged to see the outlines of some writers, to talk to them about their process, to study their creations from the moment of conception. It always feels a little dirty, which is exactly how this podcast made me feel. But as a creator it’s also fascinating and edifying and validating. And very, very liberating. By understanding the creative process and the toil other creatives put into their work, I’m given the courage to persevere and, maybe most importantly for me, right now, to be unafraid of the process. In all things in life, not just creative pursuits. I can do anything because I know it might take me a few missteps before I finally craft/learn/experience something by all rights perfect 🙂