Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The 36 Dramatic Situations

Over the centuries millions of stories have been told, written, acted out or filmed. So there must be millions of plots, yes? Countless ways for characters to unfold their actions. After all, for every path chosen, there are dozens left behind.

And yet, you would be wrong. Back in the late 1700’s, CarlosGozzi, an Italian playwright, condensed the plots of plays in an attempt to find out just how many there were. For example: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. In a nutshell, that’s the plot of every romance novel ever written. It’s no secret. Think of your favorite romance in any genre. Bet it can be boiled down to those three actions.

In the mid 1800’s, a Frenchman, Georges Polti, picked up the task, examining the scripts of ancient Greek plays as well as the more modern plays being performed on the French stage and determined that, in total, there were only thirty-six dramatic situations. That’s it! Thirty-six core plots for the millions of stories that existed.

I first found Polti’s work at a library book sale. There, in the midst of all the Harlequins, detective stories and Star Trek novels (and yes, I bought every single ST they had), sat this unassuming book. Thin volume, had the word “dramatic” on the cover. I picked it up as my husband and I also collect scripts (imagine an 18-foot long shelf with them so tightly packed you can’t squeeze another one in and you have our collection thus far).

Of course, Polti’s book is not a script, but an analysis OF scripts –and their plots. It has had a place of honor on my writer’s shelf ever since. And I’m not alone.

Over the years, the book has become an invaluable tool for writers looking to jump-start their writer’s block. It also has had people searching for that elusive 37th situation. There must be more. There must! Right?

When I first put this workshop together several years ago, I found that someone had identified a new situation and found references to it all over the Web. Unfortunately, I cannot find attribution anywhere. So yes, a 37th Situation has been identified (and is included below in the list). Now to find a 38th :).

Polti posed several questions all authors should ask, not only of their own work, but of what is currently available in the marketplace. Looking for the Next Big Topic/Genre? Perhaps we have a vision of the future in these questions:

         “Which are the dramatic situations neglected by our own epoch, so faithful in repeating the few       most familiar? Which, on the other hand, are most in use today? Which are the most neglected in each epoch, genre, school, author? What are the reasons for these preferences?”

The book Polti wrote, The 36 Dramatic Situations, was translated into English in the early 20th century and is available online. For your convenience, the list below lists the basic plot device and then the characters required for that plot.

What are you waiting for? Read on – and write!

1. Supplication
a Persecutor; a Supplicant; a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.

2. Deliverance
an Unfortunate; a Threatener; a Rescuer

3. Crime pursued by vengeance
an Avenger; a Criminal

4. Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
an Avenging Kinsman; Guilty Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim; a Relative of both

5. Pursuit
Punishment; a Fugitive

6. Disaster
a Vanquished Power; a Victorious Enemy or a Messenger

7. Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
an Unfortunate; a Master or a Misfortune

8. Revolt
a Tyrant; a Conspirator

9. Daring enterprise
a Bold Leader; an Object; an Adversary

10. Abduction
an Abductor; the Abducted; a Guardian

11. The enigma
an Interrogator; a Seeker; a Problem

12. Obtaining
(a Solicitor & an Adversary who is refusing) or (an Arbitrator & Opposing Parties)

13. Enmity of kin
a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hatred or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman

14. Rivalry of kin
the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry

15. Murderous adultery
two Adulterers; a Betrayed Spouse

16. Madness
a Madman; a Victim

17. Fatal imprudence
the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost

18. Involuntary crimes of love
a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer

19. Slaying of kin unrecognized
the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim

20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal
a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed

21. Self-sacrifice for kin
a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed

22. All sacrificed for passion
a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed

23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice

24. Rivalry of superior v. inferior
a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry

25. Adultery
two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse

26. Crimes of love
a Lover; the Beloved

27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
a Discoverer; the Guilty One

28. Obstacles to love
two Lovers; an Obstacle

29. An enemy loved
a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater

30. Ambition
an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary

31. Conflict with a god
a Mortal; an Immortal

32. Mistaken jealousy
a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake

33. Erroneous judgement
a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One

34. Remorse
a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator

35. Recovery of a lost one
a Seeker; the One Found

36. Loss of loved ones
a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner

And a “new” one!
37. Mistaken Identity
a person who believes him/herself to be someone else; getting away with an action while someone else is blamed

 An interactive list can be found here. :)



Zahra Youssry said...

Some websites say: the 37th dramatic situation is the mistaken identity, but the other some say: the 37th dramatic theme is the missing person (in the 37 plays of William Shakespeare)
Which one you think, Diana?
Another question: who did define (mistaken identity) as the 37th dramatic situation?

Diana Hunter said...

For some reason, Blogger never alerted me to your comment, Zahra. Four years later, it pops up to tell me you asked a question. My apologies for taking so long to reply.

As to who "found" the 37th plot - I don't know and haven't been able to find it on the web. Several sites mention it, but without attribution. If anyone knows, I'm interested in the answer!