The But-Fore Story Circle

What can Rick and Morty and South Park teach about writing a good story? Combining elements from the writing advice from the creators of both shows, I’ve devised a new way of structuring stories quickly and efficiently. In short, it is Dan Harmon’s story circle, with a logical transition between each stage: either a “but” or a “therefore”—a trick I learned from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park.

The “But-Fore” Story Circle.

I explain the reasoning behind the But-Fore Story Circle in more detail below.


Over the millennia (going back at least with Aristotle), several theories have emerged as to what kind of stories audiences are most likely to understand and enjoy. Several different theories have emerged, and they have come to be called “narrative structures.”

One of the best-known narrative structures is the Hero’s Journey (also called the Monomyth), developed by professor of literature Joseph Campbell. Campbell was inspired by several previous thinkers, including Carl Jung. Campbell described the journey as a 17-step process, beginning with a call to adventure, leading through some challenges, followed by a return of the hero (or anti-hero) to their old world, having grown wiser from their travails. To learn more about the history, evolution, and details about the hero’s journey, the Wikipedia article is fairly thorough.

(While the hero’s journey is one of many such structures, there is an equivalence between them all. I created another post where I compare them.)

The Story Circle

Dan Harmon (the creator of popular shows Rick and Morty and Community) invented a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey, to help with the writing for his TV shows. He called his version the “story circle”, or sometimes the “story embryo”. I prefer “story circle”.

The Story Circle has eight sequential stages:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort: Identify a protagonist and describe the basic rules of their world;
  2. They want something: The protagonist reveals a need or motivation for something that the world or protagonist doesn’t have;
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation: A reason or impetus emerges for the protagonist to take immediate action to fulfill their need;
  4. Adapt to it: They begin a challenging search to fulfill their need;
  5. Get what they wanted: The protagonist eventually finds what they’re looking for (or finds that what they wanted wasn’t what they expected);
  6. Pay a heavy price for it: They discover that in order to take what they need, they must make a difficult sacrifice—or choose it’s not worth the cost;
  7. Return to their familiar situation: Having made their choice, they must make their way back to normalcy;
  8. Having changed: they demonstrate that they’ve now changed somehow from what they used to be when the story started, by taking an action that they wouldn’t have made prior to their adventure.

These eight stages can be further simplified with eight simple words: You, Need, Go, Look, Find, Take, Return, Changed.

Story Circle and Hero's Journey
Source is

Despite the relatively simplified language and diagram, there are many subtle and intriguing nuances in the story circle (for example, its radial symmetry, and the chaos/order, stasis/change axes). For a fun analysis of these intricacies, see this video by Cloud Kitten Chronicles.

What’s a But-Fore?

When used as a tool for the writing process, narrative structures often lead a specific problem: transitions. This is where Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, come in. In a short clip from a seminar to screenwriting students, they suggested that what makes a story interesting is transitioning between each “beat” (or stage of the story circle) with one of two words: “but” or “therefore”. These words provide a logical connection between each step in the story, which helps the audience understand, follow along, and stay interested.

Note that this is very close to how Aristotle said 2500 years ago: that a good story should be written in a logical, “cause and effect” manner. Unfortunately, for many the words “cause and effect” are vague and unclear. What’s more is that if a writer does know something about logic, they may think it’s simply the word “therefore”. This results in many stories following a disjointed “and then… and then…” pattern, which is boring and hard to follow. Stone and Parker’s innovation is that they were able to simplify the abstract notion of “cause and effect” into two opposing concepts: the transition words “but” and “therefore”.

You can also think of the Stone and Parker method as a way to manage expectations. “Therefore” implies a logical connection between things. Since brains are set up to think logically, this would represent the predictable, expected option. On the other hand, “but” implies a surprise. They must still be logical, but perhaps in a subtler way that rely upon a fact that was hidden from the protagonist. “Buts” are what create tension and drama, but can also be the sources of confusion.

By combining Dan Harmon’s story circle with Stone and Parker’s but/therefore transitions, we can construct what I call a “but-fore story circle.” Of course, I am not saying that this is the only way to write a story, or the best way. I am simply saying this is a way of coming up with an easy-to-follow structure. How do I know it’s easy to follow? Because it combines lessons from the writers of two of the most popular TV shows on air right now, who work under very strict deadlines, and I’ve been using it myself to structure some of the stories I’ve want to tell.

Here’s how I work: on a word processor, I begin by typing up the eight simplified stages of Harmon’s story circle in a list. Then, I type in “Butfore…” as a new line in between each stage. I then go in and start writing (usually in the “You” stage), then I choose whether I want a “but” or a “therefore” as a transition to the next stage. Here’s how it looks like:

  1. You
    • But-fore…
  2. Need
    • But-fore…
  3. Go
    • But-fore…
  4. Look
    • But-fore…
  5. Find
    • But-fore…
  6. Take
    • But-fore…
  7. Return
    • But-fore…
  8. Changed

At this point, you might be thinking, sure, this may work for TV writing, but can you come up with examples of the But-Fore Story Circle from popular literature? My answer is yes, I have three. (Note that it’s possible to break down these stories in many different ways. The point here is just to show that the but-fore story circle is a useful technique for structuring a story, regardless of length, complexity, or genre.)


You are Cinderella, an orphan being mistreated by an evil stepmother, therefore

You need to go the ball at the castle for a chance to marry the prince to escape your misery, but

You try to go by doing all the extra chores your stepmother made you do in exchange for permission to attend, but

The deal turned out to be a trick, and your work and wardrobe were sabotaged. While you think you have no hope, your fairy godmother appears to help you look for another to get to the ball, therefore

Using her magic, you find yourself in splendid new clothes with a horse-drawn carriage that can take you to the party after all, but

Since the magic is temporary, after showing up to the ball having a wonderful time with the prince, you choose to take yourself away from him immediately when the clock strikes midnight, to avoid exposing your true clothes were hidden by magic—before you had a chance to tell him your name, you accidentally leave behind a glass slipper as you rush out, therefore….

When you return back home, although you feel like you’re stuck with your stepmother forever, you learn that the prince is going around town to look for the girl who’s foot fits the slipper, therefore

When the prince comes to your house and sees that the slipper fits you perfectly, your life is changed by marrying him and living happily ever after. The End.

The Fox and the Grapes

You are a hungry fox on a walk in the woods, therefore

You need to eat something, therefore

You go to a tree with some delicious looking grapes on a high up branch, but

You look to see how you might be able to reach them, and begin trying to jump to reach them, but

You find that you can’t jump high enough to reach the grapes, therefore

You take nothing, and are still hungry and upset, therefore

As you return to your walk, you look back at the grapes you just a few moments ago thought to be very delicious, but

Your opinion of them has now changed, despite you never even tasting them: “they’re sour grapes anyway.” The End.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

You are a poor parent expecting a new child, therefore

You need to buy some new clothes for that child, therefore

You go to find the material to knit them yourself, therefore

You spend a long time looking for a pattern and fabric to make a pair that you think would be comfortable and fashionable, therefore

You eventually find what you’re looking for, therefore

You buy them and take them home and knit them nicely, but

After you finish making those shoes, you return to your infant only to find out that they have died, therefore

Your need for baby shoes has changed and you put them up for sale. The End.