What does that mean to you, to come full circle?

On its surface, to come full circle refers to ending up where you started. It reminds me of hiking in the woods, following the maps, markers, and stars, only to end up in the same spot as the day before.

Frustrating to be sure, but it can also be terrifying. If you saw the 2022 horror movie Out of Darkness, you know just how hopeless and absolutely horrifying that feeling can be.

In the story structure world, however, coming full circle refers to the final phase of the story where the protagonist(s) return home, a.k.a. the Return. It can be a setting that they return to, such as their childhood home after leaving town, their ship or headquarters after going exploring, or the real world after adventuring in a fantasy realm.

When it’s done right, coming home at the end is one of the greatest accomplishments a writer can achieve for a reader because it feels especially powerful, meaningful, and right.

The Return is more than setting

Setting is one aspect of coming full circle, but it isn’t the only one.

I’ll start with a little context. I read tarot cards for people occasionally, and what I tell them before we begin the session is that I cannot see the future. I am not a psychic. Tarot is the art of using archetypes and universal symbols to unlock knowledge the seeker already knows. We’re human, so we have a bad habit of burying our heads in the sand when we get disappointing news or telling ourselves stories to twist events a certain way. We like to pretend our lives are different, perhaps. We self-sabotage. Or we convince ourselves we’re infallible and perfect. But deep down, we know none of that is true. Tarot reading helps us face the music, see the light, and confront our shadows.

I mention this because while setting is a component to successfully coming full circle, it can feel empty or fabricated without the story’s emotional component also coming full circle. And making that happen is more a difficult task for a writer than getting a character back home physically.

The most important thing is to remember why coming full circle is powerful in a story and to a character. No matter what, the goal is that the reader or viewer feels like they’ve also returned home—but with new knowledge. The denial they were in at the start is gone, the false narratives they kept telling themselves are erased. All that’s left is the truth.

The seven steps

There are many hero’s journey charts floating around that can include 12 to 17 steps and three or four different phases, with conflicting terminology. I’ve found that writers can get bogged down with strict adherence to the ‘rules’ and end up creating a sterile narrative.

So let me offer an alternative that keeps the Return in focus. I tend to use movies or shows as examples, as they are more widespread in our collective consciousness than books might be. I also make lists. People like lists. I, personally, love lists, so here’s my Seven Steps to Come Full-Circle in a Story using the example of the Star Wars TV series, Andor (spoiler alert!):

1. The story begins at home.

I know, profound! But this isn’t as straightforward or simple as it sounds. ‘Home’ can mean a specific place, like a literal home, or something that symbolizes home, like a person. It can also mean a state of being. An effective writer will layer in the meaning and symbolism.

Andor begins with protagonist Cassian Andor living on planet Ferrix and searching for his sister in between scavenging missions. ‘Home’ has a layered meaning here. His sister is a symbolic proxy for his original home on Kenari, and his adoptive mother, Maarva, is a symbolic proxy for his current home on Ferrix. Ferrix is also the literal location where he lives.

2. The character isn’t fully happy at home.

My goodness, is Andor miserable. He is always sulking and giving excuses for the relationships he ruins and pushes everyone away who gets too close to him. Andor self-sabotages his chances for happiness and wallows in self-pity and bitterness, and it’s all because he’s obsessed with the idea that home is somewhere else. It’s wherever his sister is, and he won’t be happy until he finds her/it. More than that, he refuses to be happy until he finds her/it.

3. The character has a naive or skewed worldview.

This step is essential, and the writer needs to spend some serious time devoted to this aspect. In our example, Andor’s viewpoint on life is quite defeatist and selfish, and we get several instances of him behaving this way to almost everyone, even those he cares about. It’s not enough to say a character is unhappy and that explains everything about them. You need to establish a pattern of behaviour and the reasons why they behave the way they do. In Andor’s case, the Empire murdered all his people. He was separated from his sister. He grew up poor and scavenging. He’s bullied and targeted by officers and Imperial sympathizers. Andor could have gone the way of rebel and hero much earlier for all these reasons, but instead, he withdrew into himself and only cares about his own wants and needs.

4. The character has to leave home.

Every hero’s journey requires, well, a journey. Narratively speaking, Andor leaves home because the law is after him for killing security officers, but we know he wanted to leave anyway. He’s been selling items on the black market to save money for his escape off Ferrix, so being a wanted criminal is just an excuse to finally take the steps he’s planned.

Usually, this is when the protagonist accepts the call to action, but the writers ensure that Andor’s call to action (running away) reinforces his skewed worldview that home is anywhere but where he currently is. They do this so there’s a bigger payoff on the Return.

5. The character’s worldview is challenged.

The ‘challenge’ is the bulk of any story. It’s all the trials and errors and rising action of the plot, but it only takes up a single item in this list. That’s because in terms of the coming full-circle agenda, the challenges should serve to reinforce the symbolism of home or the skewed worldview. This is Andor getting roped into the heist on Aldhani, choosing to kill the traitor Skeen, and living it up on the beach world of Niamos. All these serve as missed opportunities for Andor to change his concept of home and his defeatist worldview. We see glimmers of him thinking it over, yet he doesn’t change.

6. The character’s worldview is shattered.

The Andor writers spent 9 episodes establishing and exploring steps 1–5 before anything truly life-changing happens to Andor. The shattering (or revelation, supreme ordeal, etc.) finally occurs for Andor in prison, but it wasn’t the unjust arrest, the being sentenced to six years in prison, or the inhumane prison life that broke him. It’s when he realizes they’re never going to be set free at the end of Episode 9 that he breaks.

 Once Andor knows that, he can never withdraw into his defeatist mindset again. Technically, he could, but the truth about Cassian Andor is that all this time, he only pretended to care about his sister and nothing else. That was a false story. Andor actually cares so much about everyone and everything that he withdrew to protect himself.

Now, the denial, the withdrawing, is shattered, and his worldview shifts from defeatist to fighter. This could be called a character’s rebirth, but to make the Return to really work, I think of it as a shattering because the old way of thinking is dashed to pieces.

7. The character returns home with a new perspective of what home means.

By the end of Season 1, Andor finds himself back on Ferrix and in his hometown in a final battle with the Empire. He’s abandoned his search for his sister (admittedly, he got really sidetracked) and return to protect the people of Ferrix. He recognizes his real home was the one he made with Maarva, not a distant memory of a sister he no longer knows.

And we, as viewers, return home with him. We, too, feel different about the place. Before, we shared a bit of his disdain for the dead-end planet, but seeing everyone come together to protect the only thing they have—no matter how impoverished it is, no matter how small-town or problematic it is—shows us that their home matters. It’s the only thing that’s ever mattered.

Back at the beginning

I ask you the same question now: What does it mean to you, to come full circle? Does it mean something different to you than when we began?

You can follow these steps to quickly analyze other shows or stories for more examples on how coming full circle, or returning home, can be achieved effectively. If you want suggestions for stories to practise on, I recommend Fallout, The Last of Us, and I Am Mother.

My advice for your next story or novel is to ask your main character what stories, what denials, they tell themselves to get through the day. Next, what does home mean to them? Whatever that is, they need to leave it and then return with true stories instead of false ones. The character doesn’t have to stay home at the end (they can go on further adventures), but they do have to understand it better and, in so doing, understand themselves better.

Jalyn Renae Fiske serves as Fiction Editor for James Gunn’sAd Astra magazine and has her MFA in creative writing. She likes to read and write the gamut of speculative fiction from dragons to ghosts to AI, with themes that explore loss, otherness, and challenging the status quo. You can find her at her website.

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