Image: Matthew Loffhagen
So you want to write a story. First of all, congratulations! Great authors don’t wait for inspiration – they tackle the job, forcing themselves to write and create. Not only will this enhance your craft and make you more susceptible to the creative muse, but it also makes it statistically more likely that you’ll stumble across a great story.
Of course, none of that means you don’t need a hand in attaining your goal. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be explaining Dan Harmon’s quadrant method for turning a simple, basic idea into an engaging story. It’s quick, easy, and you can do it right now, starting with absolutely nothing. So, if you’re ready, let’s get started!
The quadrant method
The quadrant method is a tool of writer Dan Harmon, creator of sitcoms Community and Rick and Morty, podcast Harmontown, and writer of You’ll Be Perfect When You’re Dead. Harmon has expounded on his method in various forums – most completely on his blog – and it’s an effective interpretation that many have compared to the hero’s journey (a concept I’ve talked about elsewhere).The quadrant method can turn a single, simple idea into a story.Click To Tweet
What’s really special about Harmon’s method is that it’s so easy to put into practice – a few steps and you’ve got an amazing blueprint for your story. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can also start looking at the same story from different points of view and appreciating individual character journeys – and we will – but for now, let’s focus on an initial idea.
Step 1 – Find a simple idea
One of the key things to appreciate about the quadrant method is that its effectiveness lies in your own interest. You have to be excited about an idea – in fact, whether or not a concept is interesting or exciting to you is going to be a test down the line.
For this first step, then, you’re trying to find an initial idea. It really can be anything (Harmon lists ‘America, pickles, the number six, a raccoon’ as examples), but it needs to be something in which you have personal interest.
This idea, whatever it might be, is represented by a complete circle – it’s the core idea around which the story will travel. For the sake of illustration, let’s use two examples: dragons and marriage, though feel free to take a minute and decide on your own, which you can use to work through the rest of the article.
Step 2 – Split the circle
Having decided on a core topic, it’s time to split it in two. I’ll let Harmon explain the intent.
Divide your circle into a top half and bottom half and ask yourself what those halves might be. Like, your raccoon area might become divided into “positive thoughts about raccoons” and “negative thoughts about raccoons.” If the division doesn’t feel charged for you, pick something else, like male raccoon thoughts and female raccoon thoughts, or biological raccoon thoughts and storybook raccoon thoughts. At some point, you will divide your area into two parts that create a personal “charge” for you, like a battery. “Ooo, I like the idea that there’s a difference between biological raccoons and storybook raccoons, that tingled when I drew that line, I want to know more.”
With our examples, we need to split ‘dragons’ and ‘marriage’ into two halves. For dragons, let’s go with differing interpretations – sometimes they’re depicted as mere monsters, and sometimes they’re erudite creature with intelligence equal to or above that of a human. Our top segment is therefore ‘beastly dragons’ and our bottom segment is ‘smart dragons’.You can develop a story arc by ‘mirroring’ events over the halfway point.Click To Tweet
For marriage, let’s keep things simple – our top segment is ‘happy marriage’ and our bottom segment is ‘unhappy marriage’. Remember, though, that is could just as easily be ‘Eastern dragon’ and ‘Western dragon’, or ‘old marriage’ and ‘new marriage’ – any pair of concepts that work for you. Harmon encourages writers to go back a stage every time this process loses their interest, so having lots of different options is no hurdle.
Step 3 – Split the circle again
In this step, the idea is to once again split your circle. This time, you’re creating a left segment and a right segment, which means splitting the top and bottom segments in two. This will give you four segments that combine the two pairs of ideas in every conceivable way. Harmon explains:
Divide the divided circle down the middle and pick another charged dichotomy for left and right. For instance, biological/storybook raccoon area could get divided into dishonest/honest.
Now you have four quadrants to your circle, going clockwise: biological dishonest raccoon, storybook dishonest raccoon, storybook honest raccoon, biological honest raccoon. Any point at which you stop feeling charged, go back a step or start over. Maybe you had to get this far to realize you don’t give a shit about raccoons.
This needs to be applied to our own circles. With the ‘dragons’ circle, let’s go with ‘living in harmony with mankind’ on the right, and ‘warring with mankind’ on the left. This leaves us with four segments, moving clockwise from the top right:
- Beastly dragons living in harmony with mankind,
- Smart dragons living in harmony with mankind,
- Smart dragons warring with mankind,
- Beastly dragons warring with mankind.
For ‘marriage’… well, Harmon has already used honesty and dishonesty, so let’s get creative. Let’s try ‘wife hypnotized’ on the right, and ‘husband hypnotized’ on the left. That gives us the following four segments:
- Happy marriage with wife hypnotized,
- Unhappy marriage with wife hypnotized,
- Unhappy marriage with husband hypnotized,
- Happy marriage with husband hypnotized.
Step 4 – Introduce a protagonist
At the moment, we have four distinct segments (the quadrants of the method’s name), but what makes them a story is how we move through them. The easiest way to begin this process is to drop a protagonist into the mix. Harmon closes out his raccoon example with the following:
When you find an area that yields four charged quadrants, experiment with protagonists. Easy answer first, maybe I’m a raccoon. So once upon a time there was a dishonest biological raccoon that became a storybook raccoon, which led to him becoming honest before finally going back to being biological again. Cool?
With our own circles, there are a few more options. Let’s experiment with our ‘marriage’ quadrants. Since the wife starts off hypnotized, let’s use her as the protagonist. So she begins the story hypnotized and happy in her marriage. The next quadrant demands she becomes unhappy, so let’s follow the natural pathway and have her realize she’s been hypnotized to cater to her husband’s every whim. In the next quadrant, he’s hypnotized, so how does our protagonist get us there?
Perhaps, in revenge, she hypnotizes him right back. That creates the necessity for her to find out how – can’t you just see the scene where, suspicious that her thoughts are not her own, she ventures down into his ‘workshop’ and finds an insidious, swirling pendant? We close out the story back in apparent bliss, victim and villain having swapped roles.
Except here’s the thing – that combination has stopped giving me a ‘charge’, so let’s try it with a different protagonist. I like the story that’s emerged, but let’s tell it from the husband’s point of view. At first, he seems to have a perfect marriage, and the reader doesn’t know anything is wrong. Then, minor things start going wrong, his wife seems to resent him, and things in his workshop have been moved around. In the final scenes, the wife confronts him and the reader learns the truth about his dastardly methods, but in the next chapter, he’s acting like nothing happened, and life is great again. He admits he’s made some concessions, sure, but thinking about it, he doesn’t know why he didn’t do so sooner.
This time, the ‘charge’ is there – it’s the basis of, at the very least, a short horror story (albeit one that could be accused of ripping off The Stepford Wives). In this case, the quadrant method has provided a solid blueprint for a story. From there, it’s down to the author to build it up into something more.
We’ll look at how in a moment, but first we should also consider our ‘dragons’ circle. Again, there’s a choice of protagonists. Looking over the quadrants, I can easily see the story of a preternaturally smart dragon – born into a world where beastly dragons are little more than predatory animals – who uses her intellect to forge her lesser kin into an army and challenges mankind’s stranglehold on the world. Maybe, on reflection, I’ve actually created an origin story for my antagonist, or maybe I’m writing a story where you want the dragons to win.
In fact, I’m writing neither – the ideas have lost their ‘charge’ for me. Instead, let’s go with a longer time frame. Dragons start off as basic, plodding beasts, in harmony with nature and mankind (who maybe have a way to domesticate them, or use them in some other way). Over time, their intellect begins to increase, and they chafe under the yoke of mankind’s oppression. Skirmishes break out, and the humans are only saved by discovering a way (potion? spell? nanomachines?) to lobotomize the dragons and turn them back into beasts. (This time the story isn’t a long way from the original Planet of the Apes movies – it’s a good job that there’s a lot of success to be found in adapting famous works into new stories).
In this use of the circle, I’m actually using my first quadrant twice – reestablishing the ‘beastly dragons living in harmony with mankind’ status quo. Can I do that? Of course, because I’m the author, and this tool is intended to help me turn my idea into a story. Don’t feel too tied to this method – it’s a fantastic way to give structure to your ideas, and it encourages a great progression of stages that helps produce even, satisfying stories, but as soon as it’s restricting your artistic urges, feel free to toss it aside. Add more segments or even stop early – even if you end up nowhere, and regret your flight of fancy, it shouldn’t be too hard to find your way back.
This is the basic use of the quadrant method – we’ve taken a single, simple idea and turned it into a story. Not just that, but a story with mirrored themes and perceptible acts and beats. If that’s all the quadrant method did, we’d have been well served, but it doesn’t have to stop there.
Step 5 – Consider different viewpoints
In a different blog post, Harmon expands on the idea of applying the quadrant method to different characters in a story. Here, he talks about an episode of his show Community, ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’, in which the characters play the titular game. This is done as a kind gesture towards an acquaintance (Neil), but the game is hijacked by a petulant friend named Pierce, who resents having been excluded from the game since he was assumed too childish to play cordially.
As the story progresses, the viewer learns that Neil is in a far darker place than originally thought, and that the leader of the group, Jeff, inadvertently spread the cruel nickname that has driven him there. Happily, these issues are confronted, and Neil is uplifted, eventually concluding that Pierce’s attempt to ruin the game actually made it more enjoyable and intense than any he had ever played before. Harmon identifies the following quadrants for the episode:
- The game is a game, and the group are in control,
- The game has real consequences, and the group are in control,
- The game has real consequences, and Pierce is in control,
- The game is a game, and Pierce is in control.
This, however, is just the circle as it applies to the episode. Harmon suggests that keeping this core circle in mind, you can also examine the role of different characters in the story, giving them their own four quadrants based on how they interact with the central ideas. First, he asks how Jeff’s experiences relate to the different quadrants, suggesting that his interest in Neil seems to be initially altruistic, but is then revealed as guilt. Next, he notes that the group/Pierce dynamic mirrors Jeff losing control of the situation.
Jeff spends the first half of the story – the right half – taking charge (first out of altruism, then out of guilt). Even when his world changes, his preferred methodology doesn’t. He attempts to get Abed to ‘cheat’, he physically pulls Pierce out of the room and tries to make him stop playing, he also leads the charge on berating Britta for her commitment to the game. But Jeff’s commitment is tested… Jeff never ends up back in control, not of the group nor of the game. Which allows for the amazing things that transpire between Neil and Pierce, who have their own quadrants to get through.
So, to me, Jeff’s quadrants are, clockwise: Controlled Altruism, Controlled Guilt, Uncontrollable Guilt and finally Uncontrollable Altruism, which is another way of saying Jeff learns that sometimes you’re a bad guy and sometimes you’re a good guy and you don’t really get to choose when or how that happens, but if you try to control it, you’re going to end up the bad guy, and if you stop trying to control it, goodness will prevail.
You could do this process with Neil, with the group, with Pierce and they might all be different and/or overlap in different ways… overall, to me, no matter what character you choose, this episode takes us on a beautiful circular journey around a central point where guilt, altruism, control and surrender intersect and merge with each other.
In this way, it’s possible to use your initial quadrants to assign new quadrants to each character, ensuring successful, satisfying arcs that give every character a new angle on the same events and similar themes. In this way, the quadrant method can help you construct a solid bedrock of story, all flowing from a single idea. It’s also a nice way to show yourself that you’re making progress – a completed circle is particularly satisfying.Marry character and story to strengthen both.Click To Tweet
For those struggling with completing their circle, Harmon also shares something of a cheat, though he warns that as a ‘one size fits all’ approach is seldom the ideal form of a story.
I’ll tell you a lazy trick we learned in the Community room: when in doubt, the right half of the circle can just be “dishonesty” and the left half “honesty.” It’s almost always going to click… But it’s kind of like putting “order” on top and “chaos” on the bottom. Sure, D&D is taking us from dishonest order to dishonest chaos to honest chaos to honest order. But so does Star Wars, Miss Saigon and a commercial for gum. If you’re using quadrants to assemble or identify a specific story, it’s more valuable to get more specific.
Again, this relates to the hero’s journey, but it also sets you up with a reliable story structure – a developing problem with a revelation around the halfway mark and a conceptually neat resolution is rarely going to turn readers off.
It’s a great method, but you may still be thinking it won’t work for your story.
Breaking the quadrant method
One thing to keep in mind about the quadrant method is that Harmon is primarily a comedy writer (albeit one with a dark sense of humor). The structure of comedy tends to re-establish the status quo, or at least deal with the ideas it introduces.
Of course, it only takes a little thinking outside the box to corrupt this model – lots of dramatic stories ‘solve’ their initial problem by letting is play out to its full extent. In Irvine Welsh’s Filth, a miserable character kills himself, reaching the tragic but logical end of his spiral. This may not ‘solve’ the problem, but it does ‘close the loop’ in a way that still fits within the idea of story as a circle.
Some stories, however, abandon the reader without closing the loop – questions are left unanswered, often to suggest that there are no answers. If this is the type of story you want to write, the quadrant method may not be ideal for you, but it is still serviceable.
Remember, the quadrant method is about giving yourself an easy structure – allowing an idea to blossom into a satisfying story. Once that’s happened, you can do whatever you like – cut out that last quadrant, or repeat an idea rather than moving to the next. What if our story about marriage ends with the husband hypnotized, but the wife still unhappy? What if the humans only succeed in making the dragons smarter?
The human mind knows how stories work – that means you can mess with it.Click To Tweet
These are less traditional stories, but they still use the missing quadrant to good effect – their ending can be strange, sad or haunting because the reader understands, deep down, that there’s a final quadrant they’re not getting. Our minds, after all, naturally form these circles, so there’s even utility in deliberately ignoring their endpoint. Look at the theories that have sprung up around the ending to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Here, the viewer is left wondering about which character they can trust, and to this day, people are still writing compelling fan theories to try and close that taunting (but hugely enjoyable) circle.
Give it a try
Of course, the real proof of the quadrant theory is whether it works for you. I suggest taking five minutes to give it a try, right now. Think up an idea and expand it into four quadrants, then try to create a complementary circle for your protagonist. Maybe it’s not how your brain works, but for many writers, this technique is a wonder for turning ‘almost something’ into ‘something amazing’.
If you’re ready to try the quadrant theory out for real, combine it with How And Why You Need To Recycle Writing Ideas for ways to enliven old material. Or, if you’re hungry for more great advice from successful writers, check out A 3-minute Guide To The Snowflake Method By Randy Ingermanson and the Louis-CK-inspired What A Blacksmith Knows About How To Fix Your Story.