What Writers Should Learn From Dan Harmon


Dan Harmon is the writer and creator
behind three of my favorite shows: Community, Rick and Morty, and the one I
want to talk about today because it demonstrates how storytelling is, like
any other skill, something you can practice until it becomes an instinct.
Let’s talk about “HarmonQuest”
So here’s the premise for the show:
Dan Harmon gets together with some comedians to play an off-brand version
of Dungeons & Dragons. They improvise their way through a familiar fantasy
story of monster-slaying and magical object-hunting, the broad strokes of
which are invented by Spencer Crittenden, the dungeon master.
Spencer: So which one? You got
non-lethal arrows, good-aligned arrows, sleep arrows.
Sudekis: You have this all memorized?
Spencer: I’m a DUNGEON MASTER!
The live recording is edited down into digestible 20-minute chunks, and then animators bring their
adventure to life. The result is really funny, but it’s not just funny. It’s solid
storytelling too. Because with Harmon, it’s almost as if he can’t resist. He
can’t resist elevating the story. Here’s what I mean. So in episode 2, the gang is fighting a demonic version of Chelsea Peretti, when
this happens:
Spencer: something about the ghost smoky form staves off your blows.
Fondue: I run I run.
Boneweevil: What fondue?
Fondue: it’s a character development thing.
This line gets a laugh
but it also reveals the difference between what Harmon is doing and what
his co-hosts are doing. Now don’t get me wrong,
Erin MacGathy and Jeff B Davis are hilarious on this show. But I think the
gear that is turning in their minds as they play is: “how do I make this funnier?”
while the gear that’s turning in Harmon’s head is: “how do I make this more
compelling?” In reality, all three of them are probably thinking both thoughts, so
it’s really more a difference of degrees. But those degrees make a difference,
because as a result, the arc of the story bends towards Harmon’s character, and I
end up knowing way more about Fondue Zubag than I do Baer O’Shift, or
Boneweevil. Yeah the show loves characters with ridiculous names.
Spencer: what’s your character’s name Mr. Peanut Butter: Teflonto! PC: I am hon jodgeman.
Aubrey Plaza: My name is… Hawaiian Coffee.
By calling attention to his own character
development, Harmon turns scenes that would otherwise be just about hacking monsters to death, into scenes about overcoming cowardice. And I think that’s important
because doing that is contradictory to what the appeal of a role-playing game
is. Dungeons & Dragons and other games like it are ultimately power fantasies.
You enter the game, overcome obstacles and get stronger along the way. If that’s
all that happens it can be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience for the
player, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be fun for the audience.
Harmon’s decisions on the other hand, deliberately make his character weaker.
He has an internal flaw to fight against and that gives the story much more
dramatic meat to work with later on. In “The Anatomy Of Story,” John Truby lays
out 22 steps that he argues most stories take, and one of the most important steps
he calls “weakness and need.” A story is really about a character overcoming
their weakness, and discovering what they really need. In the case of fondue, he
overcomes cowardice and realizes that what he needed all along was friendship.
The way the show resolves all of this is a little bit forced.
Flower-den: True heroes are
courageous. Knock that shit off.
Fondue: Then I’ll be brave from now on.
But the point here isn’t that each element is executed perfectly, but that the elements of a
good story are all here, even though this is an improvised story. This is also
something that Spencer Crittenden recognized when putting the show
together: “Usually when you’re designing a campaign or adventure, you don’t plan
what they’re going to do, or what kind of arcs are going to go o,n because that’s
the stuff that players bring to the table, but because this is going to be
consumed as a TV show, we figured that we wanted to spend a little bit more time
making sure that the story had arcs. And that’s what led me to the idea that
Dan’s character, didn’t have a father.” Boneweevil: Fondue, your father left you and you were young right?
Fondue: I, yeah, but I like to be the one to share that.
The show is able to get a lot of mileage out of that relatively simple wrinkle in
the story and if you’re following along with John Truby’s book you call this
step the ghost, “it’s an open wound that is often the source of the hero’s
psychological and moral weakness.” Now, it’s entirely possible that Spencer was
also behind the idea to make Harmon’s character a coward, but there are a bunch
of other examples of Harmon making deliberate choices to refocus the story on
dramatic internal conflict throughout the show.
Fondue: I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna, I’m
not gonna be one of those cowards that lies about being a coward. I’m gonna be
brave and tell you I’m a coward.
Fondue: I don’t want to be here.
PC: It’s just market demand.
Fondue: Well here’s my market demand. Some personal space and I storm off. The other the other guys they
think I’m useless you know because I react naturally to things. I have
feelings.
And Erin and Jeff do this too when they become frustrated by Fondue’s
cowardliness.
I just know that I have more than pulled my weight. Again it’s
difficult to say with certainty what was part of the pre-planning and what was
improvised, but if you look at Harmon’s Podcast, Harmontown, there is even more
evidence of him doing this. On the podcast, Harmon and Jeff regularly play
Dungeons and Dragons, and pretty early on Harmon is leaning towards drama conflict
and planting the seeds for character growth.
Harmon: Let’s set up camp and just get to
know each other. Let’s make a little fire and let’s just talk about our backstory.
Alright my father, actually in a point of fact, was a barbarian like you. Sometimes
I wish I could — I could — I could launch into a rage like you and just like like
make everything okay.
I think there’s two lessons for writers to take away from
all this. First that what is entertaining for a creator, might not necessarily be
entertaining for an audience, and that you want to mine deeply into your
character’s weaknesses and fears to create compelling internal and external
conflict, instead of creating characters where we’re just indulging in their
awesomeness. Even the James Bond franchise figured this out with the
Daniel Craig movies. And two, that eventually storytelling will come
naturally. Dan Harmon has written hundreds of TV episodes so he’s at the
point where he can’t not hit the beats he knows have to be there on instinct. I
think it’s pretty common for writers or for anyone trying to do anything
creative to feel overwhelmed by how much
information there is to absorb about their craft. If you try to keep all of it
in mind at once you’d never write a word, but if you continue to study, continue to
practice, it will eventually recede into your subconscious and make the telling
as natural as breathing. In Dan Harmon’s own words: You know all of this
instinctively. You are a storyteller. You were born that way.

Hey guys so if you want to watch HarmonQuest, you can do so with VrV. I want to thank VrV for
sponsoring this video, since I’ve been meaning to talk about HarmonQuest for a
while now, and this was a lot of fun to do. So hit the link in the description of
this video and you can get a 30-day ad free trial of VrV. I think VrV is a
really cool concept for a streaming service. The combo pack brings together a bunch of channels that you may have already heard of, including Crunchyroll
Funimation, Rooster Teeth, Mondo and more. So it’s a great way to discover content
from the creators you already love. I’ve been working my way through “Attack on
Titan,” and it’s been amazing, so definitely check that out if you haven’t
already, and again use the link in the description to get that 30-day ad free
trial. Also, this video referenced Harmontown, the documentary about Dan’s podcast tour, so if you’re interested in Dan I’d also recommend checking that out for a really revealing behind-the-scenes look. As always, keep writing and I’ll see
you soon with a new video.

74 thoughts on “What Writers Should Learn From Dan Harmon

  1. So how do they do it? Was each part of a story written down by Den and/or Spencer prior to the episode of HQ? when Spencer "reads" the story and what happening to the characters – from where he reads? Is it a plot? Or is it a series of the predetermined cards with chunks of the story?

  2. Writers can learn that no matter what success they find through their efforts everything can be undone if you clung to crude shock early on.

  3. You're wrong about RPGs. Players give their characters flaws and weaknesses ALL THE TIME. For example, I have a Warlock who's no more than a dirty half starved kid from a foreign land who's extremely superstitious because he personally knows a dead god: his patron, manifests its will upon the world through him. "If one that is literally dead can do that, imagine the ones who're alive" he figures. A character without weaknesses is not a character. All the players would be playing the same archetype of perfection. He recently had a development arc when he grew to accept a Paladin's presence in the group and consequentially became more open to new ideas and ended up recruited by a guy to commit assassination, only to be stopped by the party who began in turn to regard him as more than an annoying pest, but instead as someone with whom they have shared so much to let him get lost to such a fate, and they all realised they would miss him, and they liked him. He reciprocated the feeling, and now I'm working on his new arc.

  4. How to be insane closet Nazi that keeps projecting that 'quality' onto others instead of doing something properly about it?

  5. Great insight! Harmon is an amazing storyteller, as he completely gets the structure and needs within story, but also subverts them for effect.

  6. How to rip off Professor Joseph Campbell's actual lifetime of research into storytelling? Because that's Dan Harmon.

  7. The weakness of creators is we almost always inherently love our creations, and when our creations face criticism it can feel like our baby is getting punched by the real world. Personally I think the best thing to do as a writer is learn about three things. Story Structure, Character Arc, and Theme. Story Structure basically keeps things evenly paced, Character Arc helps us to invest in the story by making us empathize with a character learning to search for what he needs rather than what he wants, and Theme gives a purpose or 'truth(s)' to take from the story.

  8. For the most part, you're not wrong but you could give some credit to Paizo and Pathfinder, your so called "off brand" DnD, that Harmon chooses to play in because it explicitly encourages the kinds of character development Harmon revels in.

  9. You have no idea how a tabletop RPG supposed to be played. It's not about power fantasy, it's about role-playing. It's right in the name.

    For anyone else, Critical Role is a much better show than Harmon Quest if you are into RPG shows and good story telling. It is surely not as digestible since an episode takes 3-4 hours, but that's how a session normally takes, if not more.

  10. This video let me to watch Harmonquest.
    And now, Harmonquest let me to want to play D&D myself.

    My character's name: James 'Bearpelt' Boned.

  11. What they should learn is that if you perv on the other writers of a show, you fuck the show. So don't be an asshole while at work, treat everyone how you would like to be treated, discipline yourself and work hard.

    In fact, that's what everyone should learn.

  12. I like Harmon's work, but to say he is a good writer just because he play 'RPG' the right way is not a good analysis.

  13. Thanks, now I have the definitive guide on writing about wanting to fuck babies and ruining every project I work on. Now I can do all that shit, AND not get blacklisted, thanks again man.

  14. But not every compelling story adheres to these sort of story arcs, or even follow the anatomy of a story. It is a pretty Western idea to focus on character growth and such

  15. My husband almost got to be an art director on this show. We were so disappointed when his friend's studio didn't get the show, lol

  16. Have you ever watched Critical Role?
    Brilliant storytelling by everyone involved.
    The DM is a genius, but each of the actors are also thinking about their characters in complex ways. They have flaws and secrets — and sometimes they'll set up something that takes months to pay off. it really made me think about both story and RPGs differently.

  17. Ha, when you story write, it's advised that you make your protagonist suffer, as it is the way they'll grow and overcome. Your job is to further the story, not make your character/self awesome. He's using his humility. My comment sucks because he just started to say similar to what I typed, as I'm commenting while listening. Oh fucking well.

  18. When you're looking for content on character development and see yourself in the crowd at CommuniCon (at 5:43). xD

  19. I think what you miss is that modern TTRPGs aren't power fantasy. Maybe AD&D was just focused on slaying some orcs and getting through the barebones adventure, but now people want characters to have depth. They want to feel like they're creating a story. Even the ones that still have a strong focus on combat like D&D or Shadowrun have changed to support advanced storytelling.

    If you want to play some more story-focused RPGs, try a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG or the GM-less Fiasco.

  20. "He adds so much story to his roleplaying!"

    Everyone who's been into Critical Roll or The Adventure Zone or so many other amazing D&D shows: "Uhhhhh…"

    [EDIT: This is still a fascinating video, I just think there are many more, MUCH better examples of collaborative storytelling in live-broadcasted TTRPGs]

  21. 0:39 you know he’s a real Harmonite when he pays extra for access to an entirely separate show and searches through hundreds of hours of footage to find an appropriate but ultimately nonessential clip.

  22. Thank you for your phenomenal videos. They are truly incredible. Also thanks for turning me on to another Harmon TV show that I didn't know about! Very excited!

  23. Harmontown was an alright timewaster podcast.

    But harmon is a just self hating depressed cucked sac. He needs help. Not a stage.

    Leta just say he needs talented writers to really do anything great like Community.

    And no Rick and Morty isnt good or even clever. It's just cynical subversions of american fiction tropes. Every episode over and over. Like family guy if you have seen one ep you've seen 'em all, fam.

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