Dan Harmon Poops
Could you explain a particular Community episode with the story circle? In the simplest, four quadrant version.

Sure, let’s do it with season 2’s D&D episode:

Keep in mind what I’m doing here is deconstructing a finished story, not recalling the process by which the story was broken.  Back in season 2 it was probably about identifying act breaks, i.e. asking “what new world are we entering (step 3) and what’s the worst thing that can happen there (step 6).”  But no matter how it was assembled, if the end result is a story, we should be able to detect four distinct quadrants.

If I were to take a stab at the episode’s “quadrants” in terms of general plot…and forgive me, I could really screw this up without watching the episode again, but here’s an EXAMPLE at me taking a stab, you can do this on your own and refine it.

Upper half = The Game is a Game

Lower half = The Game is Real

Left half = Pierce in Control

Right half = Abed in Control

The more important use of quadrants is in creating or checking for what the suits call “arcs.”  You go through the story in the shoes of any particular character and ask yourself what’s changing from top to bottom and from right to left as they move through the plot.  Here’s some possible upper and lower halves choosing Jeff as the protagonist:

- In Control / Out of Control

- Altruism / Guilt

- Pierce is a child / Pierce is a threat

All of those and more might be valid, it’s all subjective, but my favorite is:

- Altruism / Guilt

When I draw a line between “altruism” and “guilt,” the idea that there’s a difference sparks my interest.  Sometimes we want to help people because we’re good people and sometimes we want to help people because we don’t want to be bad people.  To someone else, there’s no distinction there, but it only needs to be visible to the writer.  To me, the arrival of Pierce, who kills Chang and runs off with Fat Neil’s sword, ushers Jeff across a threshold between altruism and guilt, yanking him from a world in which he was “fixing” Neil and tossing him into a world in which he may end up responsible for Neil’s destruction if he “loses” the game.

Moving on to picking a left/right division for Jeff.  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 because the mid point of a story is almost always where “shit gets real.”  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.

I think what’s noteworthy and specific to Winger’s story in D&D is:

Lack of Control / Control

Note I’m “stealing” that idea from my first list of brainstormed top/bottoms.  When I was riffing that list up there, I threw out “control,” and thought, “well, it’s not like Jeff ends this story back in control, he kind of loses it and never gets it ba— Ah ha.”  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 when a fictional Elf Maiden flirts with him.  He’s too shy/narcissistic/cool/homophobic to engage with Abed, so Annie takes over and gains the group access to a flock of Pegasi, which Jeff had stated as the goal.  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.

Yep, no doubt about it.  It’s a great show!  By the way, I can never mention this episode without giving shout outs to Andrew Guest and Chris McKenna, who stayed up all night writing the script with me for the table read so that the studio could give the note “they’re talking about goblins a lot.”

Excelsior!

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