The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Part 3

This is our third and final month of looking at George Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. (If you missed Part 1 before continuing.) or Part 2 , please read them before continuing.

Now that we’ve covered the thirty-six situations and the five ways they can be changed to create a unique story, how about ways to use them in creating story twists? One way is to lead the reader to think the premise of your plot is one situation, when it’s really been about another situation all along. This is particularly effective when the two situations are opposites.

This is what happened in that wonderful twisty movie The Sixth Sense. (Warning—spoiler ahead. If you’ve somehow managed to miss seeing this movie, rent it before you read on.) After a near fatal injury, the protagonist, child psychologist Malcom Crowe, sets out to help Cole, a nine-year-old boy who claims he sees dead people. Apparently these dead folks come to the boy not to scare him but for his help in some way. The child is understandably distraught about the situation, and his mother is at the end of her rope in trying to help him. Crowe seems to be his last hope. The psychologist takes the case and begins visiting Cole in an effort to help cure him.

So far it appears that the main plot of this movie (subplots aside) is based on situation #2—Deliverance (rescuer of his own accord helping the distressed). But far into the movie we discover the twist. Malcom died from the near-fatal injury he sustained at the beginning of the movie. He’s not a live child psychologist trying to help a patient; he’s now one of the dead people struggling to move on, and who needs Cole’s help to do it. So the movie isn’t based on situation #2 at all, but situation #1—Supplication (someone in a weak position, e.g., Malcom Crowe, begging help from someone in a position of strength, Cole).

What made this twist so powerful was that it brought together two situations that were polar opposites.

Now, you can’t divide the list of thirty-six situations into eighteen polar opposites. There actually are only a few exact opposite pairs. To create the greatest twists, concentrate on using one of those pairs. But that doesn’t exclude pairing any of the other situations into a twist. (Or even morphing from one to a second to a third.) Reread the list and let your imagination go. How could you change one situation into another?

For example:

What if #3—Crime Pursued by Vengeance—twists into #5—Pursuit (where the fugitive is often innocent)?

What if #7—Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune—twists into #17—Fatal Imprudence?

What if #20—Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal—twists into #16—Madness?

All sorts of interesting possibilities.

I used the thirty-six situations once when I needed to create a story (already contracted as a “blind book”) but had absolutely no idea for one. I knew I wanted a major twist. So I looked for those situations that are opposite in nature and went from there. How could the premise, based on the first situation, twist into the second? This method got me started when I had no inspiration.

And that—lack of inspiration—is one huge reason for this kind of study of the craft of fiction. Not just studying how to write POV and dialogue but the underpinnings of story. Because sooner or later, every novelist will need to write and will have no inspiration whatsoever to do so. (Trust me, if you keep writing, this will happen.) It’s one thing for it to happen when you’re not contracted, and you can just give yourself a rest. But what if you have a deadline—and no idea? All you have to fall back on is your knowledge of the craft. Understanding The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations may be just the thing to breathe new life into your creativity.

A reprint of The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations is available on Amazon for $15.95.