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 1

The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti was first published in 1917. The concept of the book is that there are only thirty-six basic plots in all of literature. Polti’s idea was not new. In brief, the idea had been bandied about by Carlo Gozzi (playwright who saw his Turandot turned into an opera) and picked up by Schiller (who translated Turandot into German) and Goethe. But Polti was struck enough by the idea to take a hard look at the situations and see for himself. Voila, yes, he said. There are only thirty-six!

Each of these situations could be studied in depth, but we don’t have room for that here. I’ve put them in their barest terms of necessary characters and objects, and I’ve added examples from (mostly) modern-day books and movies. Between this month’s and next month’s columns, we’ll look at the thirty-six situations. Every novelist should study these basic premises to understand what makes them work. Of course, most stories are combinations of the situations. It’s the endless combinations that make each story unique. At the end of the list (next month) we’ll look at how you can change elements within stories to create a unique plot.

For this month, here are the first twenty-six situations:

1. Supplication. Persecutor, supplicant, power in authority who must make decision whether or not to help. Can include an intercessor. Example—the book of Esther.

2. Deliverance. The unfortunate, threatener, rescuer. This is sort of the opposite of Supplication, in which an unfortunate appeals to a power for help. Here, the rescuer helps the distressed without being asked. Example—The Terminator.

3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance. Avenger, criminal. Example: All detective stories. Columbo.

4. Vengeance for Kindred upon Kindred. Avenging kinsmen, guilty kinsmen, relative(s) of victim. This is a mixture of #3 and #27—Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One. Example: The Lion King.

5. Pursuit. Punishment, fugitive. Opposite of #3. Hero of the story is the fugitive, who is empathetic. Example: Les Miserables. Often he is innocent. Example: The Fugitive.

6. Disaster. Vanquished power, victorious enemy or messenger. In this situation the powerful can be overthrown and the weak exalted. Example: Faust. Includes abandonment by lover or spouse. Example: An Unmarried Woman. Includes natural catastrophes. Example: The Birds.

7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune. Unfortunate, a master or misfortune. Example: Schindler’s List.

8. Revolt. Tyrant, conspirator. Example: A Tale of Two Cities.

9. Daring Enterprise. Bold leader, object to be won, adversary. Often has clearly drawn conflict, a clever plan and a victory. Example: A Bridge Too far, Saving Private Ryan, Men in Black.

10. Abduction. Abductor, abducted, guardian. This one can stray into some others (as numerous of the situations can) and shouldn’t be confused with #35—Recovery of a Lost Loved One, which focuses more on the one who is seeking the lost. This one focuses more on the one abducted. Example: Final Touch.

11. The Enigma. Interrogator, seeker, a problem. Can be seeking a person or thing on pain of death. Example: Turandot. Or can be about tests to understand a mental condition. Example: Seven.

12. Obtaining. Solicitor, refusing adversary; or an arbitrator and opposing parties. This presents an end to be attained, but at what cost and by what means? Can be a contest between reason and passion. Can include temptation. Examples: Screwtape Letters, Gump.

13. Enmity of Kinsmen. Malevolent kinsman, hated or reciprocally hating kinsman. The closer the bonds, the greater the thing that cuts them, and the greater the resulting hatred. Example: Kramer vs. Kramer.

14. Rivalry of Kinsmen. Preferred kinsman, rejected kinsman, the object. This situation can lead to Murderous Adultery, Adultery Threatened, or Crimes of Love. Example: Legends of the Fall.

15. Murderous Adultery. Adulterers, the betrayed. Example: Diabolique.

16. Madness. Madman, victim. Example: Psycho.

17. Fatal Imprudence. Imprudent, victim or object lost. This includes causing one’s own misfortune or dishonor through imprudence (Example: A River Runs Through It) or through curiosity (Example: the Greek myth Cupid and Psyche). Or one character’s imprudence can cause the death or misfortune of another.

18. Involuntary Crimes of Love. Lover, beloved, revealer. Focuses on the discovery of loving one’s own relative. Example: Oedipus. This one, and #19, says Polti, are the most “fantastic and improbable” situations. The situation can be put forth in one of two ways: (A) the fatal error is revealed simultaneously to the reader and character, only after it is irreparable (as in Oedipus), or (B) the reader knows the truth while the character doesn’t, and watches the character walk into the deed.

19. Slaying of Unrecognized Kinsman. Slayer, unrecognized victim. The blind premeditation is the focus and pathos of the story. Example: Euripedes’ Aegeus.

20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal. Hero, ideal, creditor, or thing sacrificed. Example: Joan of Arc.

21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred. Hero, kinsman, creditor or person/thing sacrificed. Example: Cyrano de Bergerac.

22. All Sacrificed for a Passion. Lover, object of fatal passion, person/thing sacrificed. Although the passion is often sexual, it doesn’t have to be. In the example, it’s the passion/lust for alcohol. Example: Leaving Las Vegas.

23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones. Hero, beloved victim, necessity for sacrifice. Example: Abraham and Isaac.

24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior. Superior rival, inferior rival, the object. Example: Rocky.

25. Adultery. Deceived husband or wife, two adulterers. Examples: Bridges of Madison County, Same Time Next Year, The Piano.

26. Crimes of Love. The lover, beloved. These crimes can include incest, murder, and others. Examples: Chinatown (incest), The Apostle (murder).

Next month we’ll conclude the list—and look at how you can vary these situations in your plotting.

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