What is a Circular Narrative Style?

Circular narratives are used across all forms of storytelling – from TV, film, literature, and even music. This popular style of structuring a narrative can provide a satisfying conclusion to a story and wrap everything up neatly.

Circular narrative definition

A circular narrative is a technique where a story ends where it began. Despite the beginning and end points appearing very similar, the main character(s) typically undergo a transformation caused by the events of the story, so they have changed compared to the beginning of the story.

Note that circular narratives are not the same as flat character arcs.

Circular road in a forest.

What is the purpose of circular storytelling?

By ending a story at a point similar to the beginning, writers can emphasise what has changed throughout the course of the narrative.

Cyclical structures help to highlight how characters have changed by providing an easy comparison between the first and final scenes. 

Their behaviour and actions, as well as other elements such as themes, can be placed side-by-side so that any progress made over the course of the story is highlighted within the close moments and the denouement.

Pros of circular storytelling

A cyclical story allows writers to craft clear character arcs. These structures help to show the changes that a character undergoes and provides a clear template for the shape of their arc. 

It also overlaps with another common form of narrative structure: the hero’s journey. The main character begins in their ordinary world, has to leave following an inciting incident, and then returns to their ordinary world having been changed by their experiences.

Cons of circular storytelling

Circular narratives are tried-and-tested forms of storytelling, but there is a danger that they come across as lazy or predictable if not done well.

As a writer, relying on a cyclical dramatic structure can work well, but it can also create restrictions on how the story is shaped. Hampering creativity is never going to help with being productive, so a cyclical narrative should only be applied if it makes sense with how the plot plays out and is resolved.

Examples of circular narratives

Films provide the most obvious examples of circular narratives due to how they can begin and end with identical visual shots that make this type of structure easy for the audience to pick up on. However, other mediums can also use this structure.

Here a two examples of circular narratives in movies:

Gone Girl

In David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, the opening and closing shots of the film are almost identical. This technique in filmmaking is a form of circular storytelling, although it by no means suggests that nothing has changed throughout the film.

On the contrary, the similarity of these two shots highlights just how much has happened since the first frame. With everything the protagonist, Nick, has gone through, and all that the audience has found out, the final frame recontextualises the twisted relationship at the heart of the story.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brother’s film about a struggling folk singer starts and ends with a similar sequence of events that culminate with Llewyn being accosted and beaten up in an alleyway.

Unlike other examples of circular narratives, such as Gone Girl, this is also an example of a flat character arc. Llewyn doesn’t undergo a change throughout the film and is instead left in the same situation as he is at the beginning.

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Circular narrative FAQs

Are circular narratives the same as flat character arcs?

These two concepts are not the same, although there are similarities. In flat character arcs, the characters are unchanged by the end of their character arc and typically end in the same situation as they began. 

Circular narratives also begin and end with the same points, but they are instead techniques for structuring the overall plot and characters can experience a change between the beginning to end.

What types of stories can use cyclical narratives?

Films can use cyclical narratives in the most distinct way, however other types of fiction such as novels, plays, videogames, and flash fiction, can also deploy this technique. There are also examples of circular narratives in poetry and even songs, with a common method being to end with the same verse used at the start.

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