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 2

This month we continue our look at George Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. (If you missed Part 1, please read it here before continuing.)

27. Discovery of a Loved One’s Dishonor. Discoverer, guilty one. Presents a similar struggle as to that in Sacrifice of a Loved One, but without the attraction of a high ideal. Here, the ideal is replaced with shame. Example: Redeeming Love. (The wife, Angel, returns to her prostitution. However, this book also presents other situations, such as #2, Deliverance.)

28. Obstacles to Love. Lovers, an obstacle. This is a situation present in every modern romance. Love can be prevented by inequalities, family, and myriad other circumstances. Polti apparently was none too fond of this situation—and would be appalled at the number of romances selling today. “Whether the piece treats of sociology, of politics, or religion, of questions of art, of the invention of a gun, of the discovery of a chemical product, of it matters not what—a love story it must have; there is no escape. Savants, revolutionists, poets, priests or generals present themselves to us only to fall immediately to love-making or match-making. It becomes a mania. And we are asked to take these tiresome repetitions seriously!” Methinks many an avid romance reader would disagree. Example: Pretty Woman.

29. An Enemy Loved. Beloved enemy, lover, hater. This one can cross into Obstacles to Love. Example: Romeo and Juliet.

30. Ambition. Ambitious person, thing coveted, adversary. Can lead to Daring Enterprise, Enmity of Kinsmen, or Rivalry of Kinsmen. Example: Jerry McGuire.

31. Conflict with a God. Mortal, immortal. This is the situation of most ancient treatment, upon with many of the Greek myths are founded. Modern example: Rosemary’s Baby.

32. Mistaken Jealousy. Jealous one, object of jealousy, supposed accomplice, cause or author of mistakes. The last element is either not personified or is personified as a traitor. Example: Othello.

33. Erroneous Judgment. Mistaken one, victim of mistake, cause or author of mistake, guilty person. Includes false suspicions, accusation of innocent. Sometimes the guilty purposely sheds suspicion on another. Example: Body Heat.

34. Remorse. Culprit, victim or sin, interrogator. Includes false guilt. Example: Crime and Punishment.

35. Recovery of a Lost One. The seeker, one found. Includes recovery of a stolen child, of one wrongly imprisoned, etc. Examples: The Man in the Iron Mask, The Deep End of the Ocean.

36. Loss of Loved Ones. Kinsman slain, kinsman spectator, executioner. Example: Love Story.

Now, if there are only thirty-six different basic premises, what makes stories unique? The nuances and differences lie in these factors:

1. Depth and uniqueness of the ties of friendship/kinship between characters. Look at #32, Mistaken Jealousy, for example. A mother-daughter story in which the daughter is jealous because she believes her widowed mother is showing some suitor more attention than her; it is a very different story from Othello, where two lovers are involved.

2. Degree of free will and conscious knowledge toward the end the characters are pursuing. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the conscious desire versus unconscious desire story. A character may be pursuing Ending A, while really what he or she wants is Ending B. In this scenario, the story premise can be based on two different situations—one representing the conscious pursuit and one representing the unconscious desire.

3. The energy of the actions in the situation. For example, murder can be diminished to a desire to murder, or even to only a blow or a too-hasty word. Or it can be multiplied and aggravated.

4. Instead of two adversaries, one or both can be substituted with a group of characters focused on the same desire but reflecting that desire under a different light.

5. The situations are combined, putting two, three, four, any number of them together. One situation can lead logically to another, or the character faces more than one at a time, or one character faces certain situations while another character faces others, etc. The possibilities are endless.

In his conclusion, Polti defends himself and his thirty-six situations system, saying he hasn’t tried to diminish art or put it into a box (my modern paraphrase of his rather antiquated language). Rather, he has shown its various forms so that artists can mold and combine as they choose, resulting in endless stories. We can use Polti’s system both to understand others’ stories—figuring out what situations they’re based upon and where the uniqueness lies—and in building our own stories.

One helpful exercise: Take any book you’ve read recently, or any movie you’ve watched, and discern its situations. And then ask yourself: How did combining these two particular situations (or three, or four) change each of them?

Take the biblical story of Esther. It’s founded on #1, Supplication—twice. First, Esther’s relative, Mordecai, begs her to save the lives of her people. Then, Esther goes before the king to beg for the Jews. But there’s also an element of #7, Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune. This is the situation that leads to the need for supplication in the first place, because Esther’s people are about to be slaughtered, thanks to nasty ol’ Haman. And there’s an element of #21, Self-Sacrifice for Kindred, in that Esther knows the king may kill her for coming into his presence unannounced (people didn’t just “drop in” on the king). So in the main plot, we have #7 leading to #1 twice, the second time being mixed with #21. Already you can see how some of the five ways listed above for bringing uniqueness into the story are being used (i.e., depth of kinship ties).

Next month, in our conclusion of discussing The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, we’ll look at how they can be used to create twists in your stories.

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